AuthorChaplin, Jonathan


The papers in this intriguing Symposium all face the perplexing challenge of negotiating a way through the thicket of divergent definitions of both "liberalism" and "Christianity." At a time when "Christianity" is thought to be, for some, fundamentally at odds with "liberalism," or for others, liberalism's enthusiastic cheerleader, we cannot avoid delving into the finer grain of these complex traditions. The clarificatory challenge in regard to "liberalism" has been lent greater urgency of late because of the comprehensive nature of assaults on "liberalism" by, especially, Catholic integralism. Christians who seek at least partially to defend liberalism against such assaults (as I do) then also inevitably run into the question of what form(s) of Christianity they think is most serviceable to that task. My response explores some elements of these challenges.


    In pursuing the task of clarifying the form(s) of liberalism they seek to defend, some contributors either propose or imply a broad distinction between what Andrew Koppelman calls liberalism as "philosophy" (1) and liberalism as "political practice." (2) I will organize my response around this distinction. Melissa Moschella, for example, distinguishes a package of "'liberal' political institutions" from liberal philosophy, arguing that the former can be better defended by "New Natural Law" (NNL) arguments than by liberal philosophy. (3) She is critical of Catholic integralism but equally of "contemporary progressive forms of liberalism" that deploy governmental coercion to compel adherence to its new "orthodoxies," for example on sexual and gender identity. (4) A natural law liberalism can resist the capacious demands of both Catholic integralism and "progressive integralism," and defend a package of liberal practices she sums up as "limited government." (5)

    To the same end, Steven D. Smith draws up a list of widely endorsed features of "minimalist" liberalism,'' which he distinguishes from more contested philosophical ideas that are a product of secular modernity--whether the broader worldview of "exclusive humanism" (7) or the narrower "progressivist" idea of equality. (8) He argues that some elements of minimalist liberalism can be agreed upon by adherents of different philosophical or theological paradigms: liberal "concepts can diverge without being in practical conflict." (9) So (to use my own example), different people might affirm divergent Kantian or Thomistic conceptions of the "rule of law" or "equal dignity," while agreeing on particular constitutional norms embedding the rule of law, or on a legal code of equal, dignity-protecting individual rights.

    Paul Billingham's purview is at first sight narrower, focusing on debates over public reason liberalism, which is only one contemporary strand within the family of modern liberal philosophies (and one which claims not to presuppose a comprehensive liberal philosophy). (10) The distinction I am drawing is less pronounced in his piece. Yet within those debates, he distinguishes between public-reason, or "justificatory," liberalism's theory of legitimacy, in which the demand for, and criteria of, the rational justification of coercive laws are central, and debates emerging from theories of deliberative democracy concerning the practice of deliberation." Billingham argues that religious voices, whether or not they pass justificatory liberalism's stringent "accessibility" test, can still be sufficiently "intelligible" to enhance the actual conduct of deliberation in liberal democracy, and so ought to be admitted, indeed constructively engaged with. (12) His presentation of two studies of actual Christian political arguments is in itself a welcome exercise in public reason liberalism, many of whose advocates still rely on caricatures of religious reasoning, often some crass form of "divine command" ("God tells you not to do X"--an instruction pretty easily shown to be "inaccessible" to nonbelievers). (13) . He shows that religious reasoning can be subtle, informative and intelligible, and argues that such contributions can improve the overall quality of the "system of deliberation" in a democracy. (14) Contrary to certain liberal expectations, then, religious voices can strengthen the democratic forums of what I'm calling "liberalism as practice." Integralista (by implication) misrepresent liberalism by suggesting that it harbors an inherent antireligious, and antidemocratic, bias. Billingham offers a plausible rendition of "inclusivist" liberalism that escapes such charges. (15)

    Brandon Paradise and Fr. Sergey Trostyanskiy also operate with a variant of this distinction, also to defend a certain understanding of liberalism. (16) Liberalism's "basic elements" (free exchange, representative government and equal individual rights) (17) are contrasted with its "more foundational metaphysical ... assumptions," namely "autonomy/self-sufficiency, dignity, and (general) freedom." (18) Yet the former, they claim, cannot escape being implicated in the latter. (19) Contra liberal neutralists, all liberal commitments are grounded in a particular modern philosophical anthropology that undergirds and frames them. (20) Liberalism is, then, not only an "ethical doctrine" but is undergirded by a "metaphysical" vision and, at a deeper level, by "faith" in a Utopian eschatology. (21) This vision seeks embodiment in "concrete intentional associations" (principally, it seems, the state) expressive of freedom and equality. (22) I'll suggest later that the political theology they commend turns out to be not so much a defense of liberalism as a distinctively Orthodox version of integralism.

    Although these authors operate with different variants of the philosophy/practice distinction, the first four at least can all be read as seeking to defend liberalism as practice, in whole or in part, against the high-octane, sweeping denunciations of "liberalism" issued by integralists. Integralists, they note, depict liberalism as driven by an overriding ideological commitment to something like a radically subjectivist and individualist conception of autonomy ("complete self-authorship," as Kathleen A. Brady puts it), (23) the supposed "necessary logic" of which inevitably corrupts and undermines central features of liberalism as practice; (24) liberalism so understood is bound to self-destruct. (25) Defenders of liberalism challenge the inevitability of that implosion and attribute whatever failings liberalism may have to other causes, such as what Smith calls inherent "vulnerabilities" of liberalism, yet ones to which it need not necessarily succumb. (26)

    I broadly concur with Brady's judgement that "today's Christian critiques of liberalism raise some valid concerns, but they are not fatal in the way that liberalism's detractors think." (27) I think a substantial suite of, at least, liberal practices can be defended without ineliminably relying on these contestable philosophical groundings of liberalism. Some package of liberal practices can be distinguished, and saved from, the more subversive currents of secular modernity that have penetrated into influential streams of liberalism; and liberalism might be differently grounded philosophically by different adherents. The plausibility of the distinction is critical to the attempt to defend, retrieve, or refound liberalism as practice in the face of its integralist detractors. For if liberalism and all its works are indeed merely the seamless outflow of such a (post-)modernist philosophy of boundless autonomy, defending it becomes a much more demanding task--which, I note, no contributor here takes on. And if integralists are right about liberalism, no Christian can consistently be a liberal. But the success, or at least the scope and method, of this defensive enterprise hang critically, of course, on how precisely the distinction between "practice" and "philosophy" is drawn, and here there remains work to do.

    1. Liberalism as Philosophy

      Many would accept that liberalism is grounded by many of its (intellectual) adherents in a particular moral and political philosophy. (28) There are deeply divergent versions of that philosophy, indebted to thinkers as different as Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Constant, Bentham, J.S. Mill, (29) Hobhouse, Hayek, Rawls, etc. For some contributors, the debt, if more remote, is instead (or as well) to Augustine (Smith) or Thomas (or, at least, to contemporary renditions of Thomism in NNL theory (Moschella) or in the social teachings of Vatican II (Brady)). (30) Others might add Protestant thinkers to this roster of protoliberal Christian thinkers. (31) Given that these canonical thinkers or schools not only propose philosophical foundations for liberalism but also trace out the implications of those foundations for liberalism as practice, we might expect that their accounts of the latter are going to reflect those foundations, blurring any bright line between the two. Paradise and Trostyanskiy go so far as to suggest that all attempts to "dissociate liberalism from metaphysics" have failed. (32) If it were to turn out that we can't even distinguish liberal practices from metaphysics, the defensive operation might be doomed. I will not be drawing such a pessimistic conclusion.

    2. Liberalism as Practice

      At the risk of a forced merger of contrasting positions, I observe that various contributors seem to embrace within this category three mutually constituting or supporting elements that can usefully be distinguished: a suite of institutions or political structures; a package of individual rights and freedoms; and, for some, the political or constitutional principles immediately undergirding these two. (Moschella includes only institutions and rights, naming the cluster of elements identified as "limited government." (33) By contrast, Smith includes principles in his cluster. (34) )

      Among the institutions cited are...

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