Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Liberty Requires Religion or Why Minorities and Dissenters are Better Off in a Christian Liberal Society

In a helpful article, "The Cultural Preconditions of American Liberty," in National Review Online, Christopher Wolfe makes two excellent points. His general thesis is the one that John Paul II hammered away at for decades, namely, that certain pre-political cultural conditions are required for liberty to endure without decaying into the kind of chaos which produces tyranny - in other words that culture precedes politics. Both the triumph of Catholic culture over Nazism and Marxism in Poland and the subsequent flood of Western consumerism into Poland merely illustrate his point.

But Wolfe has two points worth thinking about. He begins by noting that:
The oft-noted fault line of the conservative movement lies between economic conservatives and libertarians, on one hand, and social or cultural conservatives, on the other. The usual requirement for broad conservative electoral success is a “fusion” of these two wings. The most principled ground for that fusion — something other than the simple desire to win elections — lies in the recognition that, if liberty is the prime leitmotif of American conservatism, there are cultural preconditions necessary to make that liberty (political, economic, and cultural) possible and fruitful.
Not all libertarians would agree and to the extent that they do not agree they are part of the problem of modernity that the conservative movement seeks to overcome. But are there ways of allaying the fears of libertarians about theocracy? Wolfe's comments on sexual morality seem to provide a basis for libertarian fears about government dictating morality:
Stable families are the foundation of society. It is essential that the sexual passions be tamed and channeled toward the formation of the families that will raise the next generation of citizens and shape their character in support of free constitutional government — liberty under law. Tocqueville notes that travelers to America all agree that “morals are far more strict there than elsewhere” and that the conjugal tie is “very strict.” Laws regarding sexual morality (though their earlier harshness required attenuation) were examples of Tocqueville’s observation that Americans combine the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty admirably. A fixed moral world is necessary to provide a framework for the flux of political freedom, and the family is the first community in which children learn about responsibilities and rights, getting along with others, and the importance of contributing to the common good.

Moreover, as Jennifer Roback Morse has argued, failed families contribute in a multitude of ways to the pressure for expanding government power, as our experience with the decline of family stability and the rise of the modern welfare state suggests.
I think, however, that libertarians might find some comfort in the reasoning Wolfe uses to justify the influence of strict Judeo-Christian religion on a free society:
Tocqueville’s observation of the importance of religion (both for society and for individuals) is frequently noted. Religion supports the necessary moral framework for the political world, and it mitigates some of the dangerous tendencies of democracy, such as individualism and materialism.

Less often noted is that Tocqueville’s arguments apply not to “religion” generically, but to a certain kind of religion — such as the Christianity of Americans. The benefits of religion that Tocqueville sees in the Protestant Christianity of early America would not be found in a theocracy, on one hand, or in a purely civil religion, on the other. Theocratic rule (religion using politics for its purposes) would forfeit the important benefits that Tocqueville finds in the separation of church and state — benefits for both religion (insulating it and protecting it from political passions) and politics (keeping it free of religious passions). A purely civil religion (politics using religion for its purposes) would forfeit the benefits of American Christianity’s refusal simply to accommodate democracy’s tendencies: If religion did not try to attack individualism and the desire for material well-being head-on, it certainly did work to mitigate or moderate them.
Civil religion is too tame and too easily manipulated by the State and theocracy is too dangerous to religion itself.

The central paradox with which libertarianism must come to terms is that only a full-blooded, passionately held religion complete with moral absolutes can protect a liberal social order. And it is only when this religion is held by most people in a society that there can be space for dissent and diversity without the overall order being threatened. This seems counter-intuitive but it is an essential point.

Not every individual must be a believer, but enough must to create a society that does not need big-State, soft totalitarianism to prevent chaos. In the space between theocracy and secularism is a place for religion as the basis for a free society. Once a society loses the conviction that this is so, the slide toward Statism is inevitable and swift. Do not contemporary events bear this out?

The biggest mistake we are making today is that we are assuming that Christian Liberalism and Secular Liberalism amount to the same thing and can deliver the same amount of liberty without chaos and Statism. In reality, Secular Liberalism descends into Statism and soft totalitarianism with alarming speed.

Read Wolfe's whole article here.

In many of my previous posts, I have criticized "Liberalism" at times when I should have been careful to say "Secular Liberalism." That is what I meant, but I have not been careful to make this clear.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Good catch. I blogged about it on my French blog.