The Unintended Liberalism

In a conference at the University of Dallas on “America, Liberalism, and Catholicism,” Patrick Deneen gave a talk (video embedded above), in which he argued that the early American Republic was far less liberal than soi-disant “conservatives” (funded as they have been since the Cold War by big business) have thought it to have been. The particular states even had a kind of “Prostestant integralism” as he argues—established religion, laws aimed directly at fostering virtue, etc. A similar point was made by Matthew Petterson in a recent lecture for the Thomistic Institute. That is, the American founders may have established (at least) soft liberalism at the federal level, but many of them wanted to continue to allow a kind of pre-liberal magisterial Protestantism at the state level. I think it is a useful point, especially as part of an argument for a politics of virtue and the common good in contemporary America.

An important question was, however, raised by Ross Douthat at the end of the Q&A to the panel above. He asked whether there was not something logical about the development from Protestantism, with its particular kind of “individualism,” towards a more individualistic kind of politics. Deneen gave a very gentle, ecumenical answer. But there is a lot of evidence for another answer.

In another panel at the same Dallas conference, Gladden Pappin showed how liberalism is always opposed to the authority of the Church, which it has always wished to deny the status of a societas perfecta, with the ability to make laws, and reduce to the status of a voluntary club. But, of course, this denial of the authority of the Church was one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation. The “liberty of the Christian” was taken to be opposed to the authority of the Church. Luther was very clear that this understanding of an opposition between liberty and authority did not extend to the authority of magistrates in the visible kingdom (hence his opposition to the Peasants’ War, etc.). Nevertheless, it was not surprising that the false opposition between liberty and authority that Luther wanted to contain to the invisible kingdom was later extended to deny political authority (Enlightenment and French Revolution), and even the authority of God (some of the more extreme philosophes, and then Feurbach and Marx in the 19th century). That was of course against the intentions of Luther and Calvin, who would probably have advised the magistrates to put Feurbach and Marx to death if those philosophers had lived at the time of the Reformation. But we have here a kind of reversal of intentions and effects, of the sort that Max Weber delineated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or (even more) Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

The connection between Luther’s “liberty of the Christian” and the development of liberalism is has also been noted by the popes. Pope Pius VI not only suggests the connection in Quare Lacrymae, but even sees the Enlightenment philosophers as being allied to the Protestants in France:

For a long time the Calvinists in France had begun to work towards the ruin of orthodox religion; but first they had to prepare the people’s souls, and imbue them with impious doctrines, which from that time they did not cease to spread among the masses through books replete with treachery and sedition, and they joined to their own aims the work of perverse philosophers.

He then explains how the philosophers denied the binding character of political authority, and argued that subjects are free to rebel against their rulers. They did this by developing a false account of liberty:

And it was then, when by these arts they had seduced to their party the great multitude of the people, blandishing (or rather, mocking) them more and more with gifts and promises, they invented that specious name of liberty, and called all to its raised signs and banners. This, then, is that philosophical liberty, which works to corrupt souls and deprave morals, so that all order of the laws and of all things is overturned.

Leo XIII makes a similar point in Diuturnum Illud:

In truth, sudden uprisings and the boldest rebellions immediately followed in Germany the so-called Reformation, the authors and leaders of which, by their new doctrines, attacked at the very foundation religious and civil authority; and this with so fearful an outburst of civil war and with such slaughter that there was scarcely any place free from tumult and bloodshed. From this heresy there arose in the last century a false philosophy – a new right as it is called, and a popular authority, together with an unbridled license which many regard as the only true liberty. Hence we have reached the limit of horrors, to wit, communism, socialism, nihilism, hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin.

I do not think that there is any absolute necessity to Protestant polities devolving into liberalism, but I do think that “Protestant integralism” is less stable than true integralism. Not only because of the false opposition between liberty and authority tends to be extended, but also because such Protestant states do not have the limiting oversight of the spiritual authority, whose auctoritas sacrata could intervene ratione peccati.

It can, of course, be objected that the most extreme forms of liberalism were developed in mostly Catholic countries—France, Italy, Spain. But I think that even there Protestantism was a necessary precondition to the development of liberalism. Not only on account of the connections noted by Pius VI, but also because Enlightenment thinkers in Catholic countries envied the culture of the Protestant North. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it “the first phase of the French revolution can be understood as an attempt to enter by political means this North European culture.”

Is there a practical upshot to this today? In the short term Deneen is surely right that Catholics and Protestants should cooperate in the attempt at bringing about a new politics of virtue and and the common good. But in the long term, the wounds of the Reformation will have to be healed, and the unity of the Church reestablished “that the world may believe” (John 17:21).

In Quas primas Pope Pius XI made the bold claim that the Catholic Church “is the kingdom of Christ on earth, destined to be spread among all men and all nations” (§12). Full recognition of the Kingship of Christ thus demands submission to the societas perfecta that is His Church. Pius XI goes on to describe the hoped for results, not only eternal, but also temporal:

When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony. Our Lord’s regal office invests the human authority of princes and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen’s duty of obedience. […] If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquillity, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent. […] Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! “Then at length,” to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, twenty-five years ago to the bishops of the Universal Church, “then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. Men will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.” (§§19-20)

One thought on “The Unintended Liberalism

  1. I love your blog and have been reading you elsewhere as well. I am being convinced of the Integralist position. In one of your blog links (Zippy Catholic, RIP) the idea has come up that to vote at all in a mass election is a bad idea, and this for three reasons: 1) your vote is pragmatically useless as it’s impact is extremely diluted; 2) unless candidate A is an ideal choice and not just the “lesser of two evils”, you are lending support to the evils that will come upon his election; 3) pragmatically aside, merely by voting you are signaling your support for the overriding liberal order (and it is very much received that way). Do you agree, is it wrong to vote at all in mass elections? This sounds like a powerful argument, but I wonder if voting for the lesser of two evils is still the most Christian thing to do. Again, I love your writing, thank you so much for it!


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