In Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, Marcello Pera described the idea of natural rights as the vital core of liberalism: “All human beings are free and equal by nature; their basic liberties exist prior to and independent of the state, and are noncoercible by the state.” As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the Foreword, one of “the characteristics of liberal thought is its foundation in the Christian image of God. The emphasis on the idea of man’s freedom, characteristic of liberal thought, presupposes the idea of man in the image of God, the consequence of which is precisely the freedom of man.” Locke, Kant, and Jefferson had shared the same philosophical language. Assuming a natural diversity of free and equal people with a capacity “to live together, faithful and loyal to the state,” the Enlightenment project began, optimistically, with the presupposition that liberal societies “must be able to harmonize all their conceptions of the good” and to keep friction among different faiths to a minimum.
At the apex of its influence during and following the Second World War, liberal internationalism held totalitarianism at bay, dismantled the colonial system, emerged as the West’s governing ideology, and “helped prevent democracy from becoming ‘the tyranny of the majority,’ by obliging it to respect certain fundamental rights and institutions.” The subsequent economic success and cultural vitality of the American-sponsored global free trade regime brought the whole world to the West’s doorstep. Yet the growing incompatibility of its major tenets, divorced from their Christian roots, have exposed liberalism’s clay feet.
The different varieties of liberalism today have sprung out of one of two irreconcilable political families: conservatism and socialism. The liberal worldview has given rise to eclectic doctrines, hybrid regimes, and the current legitimacy crisis in both Europe and America. “Regarding the exercise and justification of liberal rights,” Pera observes, “our society has been transformed from a homogeneous one shaped by Christian values (as it was for centuries) into one marked by intense religious conflict.” Opposition to the influence of religion in the public square has moved from sectarian hostility to marginalization and more active sanctions. The equation of liberalism with secularism has a chilling effect on religious expression. Far from enhancing reasoned political debate, the public airways are filled by increasingly shrill invective. The terms of civil discourse are being changed “by the re-emergence of strong nationalist sentiments, by increased friction among various conceptions of the good, and by the spreading of multiculturalism, the idea that groups, classes, or categories have special rights distinct from those of the majority or from those of humanity as a whole.”
What Pera calls “the secular equation” may be described as a blend of political liberalism (both classical and Progressive) with a secular mindset that “endorses its own religious or comprehensive doctrine.” This mixture enables the reign of what Plato called doxa: politically useful opinions, forcefully asserted. It resembles what Plato carefully scrutinized and attributed to the democracy of Socrates’ day—alluring, multicultural, free, egalitarian, and permissive—in Book VIII of The Republic. It also aptly describes the “fads and foibles”—to use Pitirim Sorokin’s phrase—that run roughshod through contemporary social science literature, which Philip Rieff and Thomas Sowell have so skillfully eviscerated. At the end of a string of illustrations in The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray concluded: “[T]he purpose of large sections of academia had ceased to be the exploration, discovery or dissemination of truth. The purpose had become the creation, nurture, and propagandization of a particular, and peculiar, brand of politics. The purpose was not academia, but activism.”
By now the novelty of our not-so-new transgressive ideas and -isms should have worn off. Sorokin already diagnosed what ails us in The Crisis of Our Age (1941): “Our ethics is a jungle of discordant norms and opposite values. Our religious belief is a wild concoction of a dozen various ‘Social Gospels,’ diversified by several beliefs of Christianity diluted by those of Marxianism, Democracy, and Theosophy, enriched by a dozen vulgarized philosophical ideas, corrected by several scientific theories, peacefully squatting side by side with the most atrocious magical superstitions.”
Sorokin saw history as a flow between family-based (familistic), contractual, and compulsory or coercive relationships. The weakening of families and private property with the growth of collective political power signals the breakdown of the very liberties that once coincided with an earlier, pre-liberal social contract: the political covenants that, for example, molded forms of civil liberty and self-government pioneered by the Pilgrims four centuries ago this November, followed by constitutional experiments in localism, federalism, and bills of rights by Puritans and other religious dissenters.
During America’s great spurt of immigration and industrial growth after the Civil War, the still young republic became the world’s greatest investment market. Like the Athens of Pericles, all the world came to do business, helping increase America’s material wealth and power. But then, choosing to thrust itself onto the world stage in 1898 and again in 1917, America began to forsake its republican traditions of limited government in favor of consolidated national power. Progressives campaigned to concentrate their reform experiments in Washington. Wartime mobilization favored what Edward Corwin called a Constitution of Powers. Attempts to harness and regulate the economy brought even more of the same to repair the resulting damage. By making itself the indispensable nation America became, by 1940, the Arsenal of Democracy. By then the trajectory of political and corporate empire-building and the loss of local initiative that imperils liberty and the rule of law today was already well set.
In Sorokin’s judgment, the shift from a God-centered (ideational) to a secular materialistic (sensate) order means that the narrowly materialist view of contract would tend, “by its very nature, to degenerate into lawless, normless, amoral, godless compulsion and coercion.” His prognosis of 1941 describes the challenge we still face: “Such a culture loses its individuality. It becomes formless, shapeless, style-less. As such, it becomes less and less distinguishable in the ocean of cultural phenomena as a striking and magnificent individuality. When it reaches this stage, its creative career is finished. From the creative actor of history, it passes into the museum of historical survivals.” Living cultures reproduce themselves; impersonal edifices attract vandals.
Is there any remedy for this vipers’ tangle of cultural neuroses? Perhaps. Let us encourage local communities to engage in entrepreneurial economic and infrastructure projects. We must strengthen human-scale institutions. These include families, neighborhoods, and counties as self-governing units within a restored federal framework cleansed of empire-building administrative agencies, especially that part of the regulatory apparatus which serves as a transmission belt for radical social change.