According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.
Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.
Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.
I didn’t even watch the inaugural festivities live on TV, much less attend them in person. But I did catch the president’s speech in re-runs, and like many others I thought it provided a persuasive articulation of his brand of pragmatic progressivism. It’s not a creed I fully share, but in terms of current American political possibilities, it certainly beats the alternatives. Four more years!
In the afterword to his magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (which I finished reading over Christmas), historian James McPherson says that the Civil War was a turning point between two different understandings of liberty. He distinguishes them using the terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty. Roughly, negative liberty is freedom from external interference–the “right to be left alone.” So understood, freedom is essentially opposite to government power: the stronger the government, the less freedom. The American Revolution was arguably a battle for negative liberty in that the colonies were seeking freedom from English domination and that the resulting government was one of sharply limited powers.
By contrast, positive liberty is having the actual capability to do something you want. Freedom in this sense is not inherently opposed to power, but in fact requires a strong government. Freeing slaves, to take the most salient example, required a dramatic increase in federal power.
McPherson contends that, after the Civil War, positive liberty became the dominant American understanding of freedom. He points out that the first ten amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights–were essentially a series of “thou shalt nots” directed at the federal government intended to limit its power; but the post-Civil War amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established that the federal government did have the power to enforce the equal civil rights and freedoms of citizens. This created a much wider scope for government activity to ensure equal effective freedom.
McPherson observes that the “libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.”
Unlike these one-dimensional philosophers of negative liberty, however, Lincoln understood that secession and war had launched a revolution that changed America forever. Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty. (p. 867)
This, of course, is also the view of American liberalism–the liberalism of F.D.R. and L.B.J. and the modern Democratic Party. When conservatives invoke freedom they usually intend to restrict it to negative liberty in McPherson’s sense (although even this commitment is often more honored in the breach than the observance). Freedom from taxes, from regulation, from restrictions on gun ownership, etc. are all framed as negative freedoms. Liberals maintain, though, that government power is necessary to ensure a degree of positive freedom sufficient for people to lead flourishing lives. This is the theoretical basis for the social welfare state and government regulations on nominally private activity, such as pollution. Lincoln may not have been a “liberal” in the modern sense, but there’s a relatively straight line from his political philosophy to New Deal-Great Society liberalism.
Disturbingly, though, the increase in positive liberty often seems to go hand-in-hand with a diminution in negative liberty. We only need to recall Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, F.D.R.’s internment camps, or Obama’s “kill list.” That’s the legitimate insight of the libertarians (and their left-wing cousins the anarchists)–that it’s hard to establish a firewall that confines government power to good purposes. So you end up with an expanded welfare state and civil liberties violations and overseas wars. That doesn’t mean that a free, peaceful, and social democratic society is impossible (the Scandinavian countries seem to pull if off fairly successfully); but it may be a risk inherent in the project.
The big political news of the day, of course, is the video released by Mother Jones of Mitt Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors in which he essentially wrote off half the American public as moochers who will never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.
Romney’s remarks are a version of an increasingly popular conservative narrative according to which 47 percent of the American public allegedly pay no taxes and are living off the largesse of the welfare state at the expense of the hard-working “makers.”
There have been a number of debunkings of Romney’s comments today, not all of them from liberals. Ezra Klein wrote about it with his usual wonky detail, but National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and First Things‘ Matthew Schmitz also pushed back. The New York Times’ David Brooks pointed out that these “freeloaders” include war veterans, students getting loans to go to college, and senior citizens (who disproportionately vote Republican!). The reality is that there’s no clear sense in which the political coalitions of Right and Left can be divided into “makers” and “takers.”
I’m not trying to make a tu quoque argument that Republicans benefit from government spending too. The point I’d rather make is that the self-made man who inherits nothing and doesn’t owe anybody anything is a myth. Luck is as large a determinant of where you end up as individual initiative is. And liberals believe that government is the only entity in society with the ability to level the playing field a bit and make sure as many people as possible have a shot at a decent life. It does this through redistribution, regulation, and provision of public services, among other functions. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I became disenchanted with libertarianism was that I realized my life wouldn’t be possible without “big government.”
We all probably have a tendency to exaggerate our own contributions to our successes and to minimize what we owe to others, to circumstances, or to dumb luck. But is that something to base a governing philosophy on?
In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:
For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.
I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.
Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.
The events at the recent general convention of the Episcopal Church have generated a wave of the usual outrage/concern-trolling/Schadenfreude over the supposed demise of liberal/mainline Christianity. Conservatives have been riding this hobby horse for years, arguing that while churches that espouse more liberal theological or social positions have seen declines in membership, more conservative churches have been growing (or at least declining at a slower rate). The lesson–sometimes explicit but more often implicit–is supposed to be that embracing conservatism is the key to growth (which is in turn understood as virtually synonymous with success).
As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated than this narrative suggests. Certainly all is not well in the mainline, but there are a few things we should keep in mind:
–Most major church bodies in the U.S. are experiencing some degree of decline, including the Roman Catholic Church and the famously conservative Southern Baptists.
–Churches labeled “conservative” aren’t necessarily growing because of their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy; many of them downplay theology in favor of various self-help, personal growth techniques; “prosperity” preaching; or right-wing politics that have little to do with the historic Christian faith.
–Churches that take “liberal” stances on political or social issues aren’t necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to worship.
–Mainline denominations are actually not as liberal as people think but contain a wide range of theological and political views. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama got only 44 percent of the white mainline Protestant vote (see, e.g., this study). Similarly, a review of official church statements on issues like marriage and abortion would show that mainline churches have hardly bought into “sexual liberation” hook, line, and sinker.
–Liberals are often accused of “capitulating to the culture,” but many positions espoused by liberal churches (on the economy, war, or immigration, for example) are actually “countercultural” with respect to the dominant American culture.
None of this shows that liberal Christianity has a bright future–or that mainline denominations don’t have major institutional problems that need to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that “liberalism” explains these churches’ problems or that being less liberal is a panacea for what ails them.
Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)
Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:
The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.
To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.
To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)
The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.
The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.
I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”