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.

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Protestantism, Nature, Grace

In the section on Protestantism in Part III of my Josias essay on religious liberty, I tried to understand the Protestant view of nature and grace. Given the emphasis on grace in Protestant soteriology I used to assume that they would probably underestimate the goodness of nature and the extent to which it is preserved and restored by grace. But going to a Calvinist conference a few years ago I realized that this was not actually what they do. It was only through reading my friends at The Calvinist International though that I came to see that they in fact do virtually the opposite. Peter Escalante’s essay “Two Ends or Two Kingdoms?” shows with great clarity that to the Reformers grace merely restores nature without elevating it. Escalante is an alumnus of my alma mater and knows Catholic theology quite well, and I think his presentation both of my side and of his is accurate. As his colleague, Steven Wedgeworth, points out, our disagreements are not on what the positions are, but on which one is right. Continue reading

In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

Alan Jacobs recently posted an outline of an argument against a certain sort of story about the origins of modernity told by many Thomists—the sort of account given by Gilson in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and by Maritain in Three Reformers; the Ockham→ Luther→ Calvin→ Bacon→ Descartes→ modernity tale of decline. Jacob’s makes six complaints about this sort of account. No two versions of the account are the same, and so Jacobs focuses on the versions of it presented by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation  and Thomas Pfau in Minding the Modern. I haven’t read Pfau, but I have read Gregory, and while I would quibble with some of his points, I agree with the basic outline of his argument. So I disagree with Jacobs, and in what follows I give a brief response to all six of his complaints. Continue reading