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.Continue reading