Author: Patrick J. Deneen
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publish Date: January 9, 2018
Pages: 248 pages (Hardcover)
The story goes that on the last day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall and a woman asked him, “What have you given us?” Franklin purportedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” In his new book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick J. Deneen argues that it is not that we have failed to keep “it” (the republic) but that we have kept “it” all too well, carrying liberalism to its logical conclusion.
Deneen suggests that liberalism ushered in a new definition of liberty and along with it, a radically new understanding of what it means to be human. This foundation of liberalism was laid by “protoliberal” thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Machiavelli; and it was built upon by Locke and Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, among others. Originally scientific and economic, liberalism freed humankind from nature in order to harness and master the natural world in the name of unending progress. This liberty is now the basis for the conquest of human nature itself—a gnostic disassociation of self from body, culminating in the sexual revolution. For Christians, this anthropological question is not just political but fundamentally theological. What does it mean to be human? What is the end of creaturely existence?
Like a parasite, liberalism originally moved into a home it did not own, and its flourishing required the very moral and cultural tradition that it would eventually evict. Liberalism not only kicked out the original occupants, but it also devoured them and their inheritance in the aftermath of their vacancy. Once understood as the cultivation of virtue for the purpose of self-governance, liberty has been redefined as the liberation of the individual from all determinations not self-chosen—the past, tradition, religion, culture, family. What is left is social Darwinism, a system where the autonomous self and its individual rights are set over and against one another with no one to mediate the resulting conflict but the state. Here Deneen rightly names that the ever-increasing encroachment of the state into every arena of human existence is not an aberration but the only logical outcome. Set free from all other spheres of belonging, the only authority left to arbitrate between competing individuals is the centralized government. The end of liberalism is not freedom; rather, it is the tyranny of modern statism.
Deneen is not the first to sound the alarm. Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and William Cavanaugh, among others, have raised questions about the liberal project and the Church’s proper response. Yet, questions about the possible heretical conception of human nature at work in liberalism were asked centuries ago at the very start of the American Revolution. As Mark Noll writes:
Traditional Christian complaints were recited for several centuries as a common litany: Republican instincts prized human self-sufficiency more highly than dependence upon God. . . . Both Protestants and Catholics, in addition, regularly noted the persistent correlation of republican political convictions and heterodox theological opinions. The discourse of virtue, vice, liberty, and tyranny seemed always to be associated with the rejection of innate human sinfulness, with views on human salvation that dispensed with the substitutionary work of Christ, with opinions about Jesus treating him as no more than an unusual human being, and, in the most extreme cases, with arguments denying the existence of God altogether.1
To his credit, Deneen does not argue for the return to pre-modernity as if we could pretend the past four centuries have never happened. Deneen acknowledges the achievements won by liberalism, and he suggests instead that we turn to tending to our local spheres of influence, re-creating thick local networks and cultures as forms of resistance. From these practices a new political order might organically emerge.
It is Christianity that has given to the modern West an emphasis on the dignity of the individual and the existence of rights (184-85). The problem of liberalism is not that of individual rights, per se, but a conception of the individual torn asunder from his/her proper teleological ends. This is the shortcoming of Deneen’s work. It is not the problem of liberalism any more than the problem of every form of government that has existed. It is the problem of the primal sin—to turn from God, to seek our own way, to worship the creature instead of the Creator. It is the possibility that lies at the heart of every human conception of government. Saint Augustine defines sin by the phrase incurvatus in se — to be curved in upon oneself, to let the self’s rapacious appetite consume everyone and everything around it, eventually consuming itself. When framed this way, this is not the problem of liberalism alone but of any ideology, political or otherwise.
“Two loves,” Saint Augustine writes, “have made two cities: Love of self, even to point of contempt for God, made the earthly city; and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city.”2 The earthly city is not the story of any one political or social order, but the story of humankind, disordered and disfigured by sin, bent and curved in upon itself. The heavenly city is the city of God, its citizens made known by hearts oriented toward their love of God and love of neighbor. Within the tragic course of human history, these two cities and loves have always intermingled, awaiting a final separation on the day of judgement.
For this reason, Saint Augustine reminds us that as the people of God, we are always pilgrims and wanderers, a people without a home in the earthly city. We live and move among the earthly city, seeking the common good when we can; but as citizens of the city of God, our interactions with the earthly city are always qualified and chastened. As those who belong to the city of God, we cannot worship the idols of the earthly city. Our hope is in God, not in any king or queen, president or prime minister. Our hope is in God, not in any political order or ideology. This side of heaven all of these things are prone to sinful disorder, leading us astray from our true love.
The Christian reader of Why Liberalism Failed is invited first to repentance. The Christian must confess and repent of the ways in which he/she has been led to worship the earthly city’s object of love: the self. Second, the Christian is called to a sober realism. Human history is, in deep ways, a tragedy. And as such, this side of heaven all of our well-meaning attempts to usher in the kingdom of God on earth — whether that is by electing enough Christian politicians to enact our desired agendas, or getting the right judge on the Supreme Court, or in utopian social activism —will be confounded by sin and evil. Our hope is not in the renewal or the rejection of liberalism. It is not in the next political order that may arise from its ashes for it too will bend and break under the weight of sin and meet its rightful end in the judgment of God.
But while the story of the earthly city is ultimately defined by tragedy, the city of God is defined by hope. While Deneen sounds the alarm of a political ideology that may be on its deathbed, the Christian response cannot be one given to fear. We are not called to despair or to feverish activity to save the transitory orders of the earthly city, and neither are we called to create a new order in its place. Instead, Christians are called to the most radical of all postures: a posture of patient endurance oriented by hope. We are called to remember that the most important thing we do is not cast a ballot but gather in worship around a pulpit, font, and table. It is to hear again the good news: “that we are not our own, but that we belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 1). We must recall the perseverance of the saints; that the citizens of the city of God will endure only under the watchful and faithful care of the providence of God. We do not have to save ourselves. We cannot. Only God can do that. And so no matter what may come — the calls to actions that are sounded, the cries of fear that are heard — we wait with hope. If liberalism lives on, or a new order emerges to take its place, the Christian lives between the first and second coming of Christ in hope. We wait in patient endurance, for as the Apostle Paul reminds us: “ur citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, NRSV).