A Brief Defense of Liberal Democracy
And an even briefer indictment it as a guiding personal philosophy.
First, note the definitions that will be used in this essay:
LIBERALISM — a political philosophy centered around freedoms — personal, familial, congregational — and ensuring the government protects those freedoms. This is NOT what might be called liberalism in the political arena as representing Democrats or what we might recognize as a liberal policy platform. Other terms for this include Enlightenment Liberalism or the Liberal Order.
CONSERVATIVISM — a political philosophy oriented around the recovery of religious and civil traditions, ensuring the government supports and enhances those traditions. This is NOT what might be called conservativism in the modern political arena as representing Republicans or most folks who would self-identify as conservatives. Other terms for this include Nationalist Conservativism, Christian Nationalism, or Nationalism.
I want to present a brief historical and theological defense of Liberalism in light of the rise of nationalist Conservativism in place of traditional liberal democracy in the Republican party. I have critiqued one presentation of Conservativism and surely will have more with the upcoming National Conservative Conference in September. In particular, I noted the historical and theological problems I have with Nationalist Conservativism, which I will not rehash here. A salient response would be, well, what in history or theology allows for or supports a Liberal philosophy of governance? This is my brief attempt at an answer.
Conservatives mark the dominance of Enlightenment Liberalism as beginning after World War 2, which they reference as the “Postwar Liberal Order” and other similar phrases.
Granting that truth (although it could be debated), some very positive realities about that period show up very quickly which, I hope, could be broadly acknowledged as Good:
1. The end of Jim Crow and the arrival of civil rights legislation which protects the status of minorities & women.
2. The extension of voting rights to minorities, including Native Americans and African Americans.
Hazony argues that these sorts of advancements were both moments of national repentance but also poison pills, opening the door to the dominance of a neo-Marxist lgbtq and racial agenda, but cannot offer an alternative explanation for how Jim Crow might have ended without the advancement of a Liberal legal system which emphasized individual rights. The Civil Rights movement was overwhelmingly a Liberal effort, born of a desire for freedom recognized and protected by the law. Amazingly, it was also largely a Christian movement, brought about by pastors and planned in congregational meetings. It was exactly the kind of “significant influence on government” that Wayne Grudem proposes in his tome on Politics, without having to fall back on a nationalist tradition because, for Black Americans, the tradition would’ve only been their ruin. The Civil Rights Era was, without question, the greatest triumph of Liberal philosophy in the last Century.
3. The longest stretch of time in human history without a global conflict encompassing multiple nations and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
4. The fastest expansion of technology, especially medical and communication technology, in human history.
5. The exploration of space.
6. The fastest decline in poverty and infant mortality in human history.
A retort to this second list might well be, “but those are the fruit of technological advances or nuclear weaponry.” But to this I say: what was the underlying precondition that both ensured that the technology was leveraged for the betterment of mankind and that nuclear weapons were not used to eradicate the earth? If the Liberal Order dominated post-WW2, then it was Liberalism which ensured we were not ended by nuclear weapons, for example, and ensured that the benefits of communication and health technology extended beyond American borders. Nations which we might recognize as being Conservative (dominated by their religious and cultural traditions) in no way lead the way in establishing or maintaining peace, and certainly were not on the vanguard of the sorts of technological advancements that have brought about significant human flourishing. Unless we dismiss all of this as “Accidents of history concomitant with the rise of Enlightenment Liberalism,” we are stuck with the 20th Century being an extraordinary time of human advancement built on the spine of Liberalism itself.
7. The addition of significant signifiers of religion, including “In God We Trust” as official national motto and the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “under God.”
8. A rampant rise in the practice of patriotism in public venues, including (especially) football games, NASCAR races, and much more.
9. A rapid rise in the participation in the process of Democracy as represented by election participation.
10. The strongest legal protections for religious practice in American history.
If Post-war America was Liberal, then it sure was Religious and Patriotic in its Liberalism. In other words, the expansion of personal rights and legal protections for freedom was not opposite to a rapid rise in the recognition of God & the goodness of America in the public sphere. Pre-war sports events did not sing the National Anthem every single game. “Under God” appeared after World War 2. Even the regular and universal saying of the Pledge of Allegiance was a post-war practice. So in American history, unless we dismiss the rise in freedom and practices of civil religion as accidents of history, we are also stuck with the 20th Century being a time of unparalleled freedoms and religious nationalism built on the spine of Liberalism as well.
The repeated exhortation to followers of God who found themselves in the minority was pretty simple: live a godly life, work hard, and bless the place where you live by your hard work and peaceable life.
In Jeremiah 29, when the nation is carried from Jerusalem to Babylon, Jeremiah conveys a letter to the elders and leaders:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
The idea was simple: work, grow, marry, increase, and keep the integrity of your faith. Indeed, God promises in that context that He will violently deal with false prophets and the failed leadership in Israel: “this is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth”
God’s words here rest on two objective truths: 1. the faithfulness of the people of Israel was not dependent on being in political power; 2. God would sovereignly ‘deal with’ the political leadership that strayed from his theocratic order. God’s sovereignty is paramount.
These truths carry through the Scriptures when God’s people are not in power in a theocratic order. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all had to maintain faithfulness in a pluralistic context where they did not have political control over their neighbors. Joseph’s entire story is one of faithfulness in the sovereignty of God while moving from a place of absolute powerlessness to an extremely powerful position. Joseph’s story is informative in this regard: even when he held the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, he benefitted the kingdom by protecting and blessing his family/clan/people (Israel) and not be expanding a theocratic order under the banner of Yahweh. He certainly did not enact any kind of Judeo moral order.
The New Testament carries on these two themes: faithfulness regardless of political order and an absolute faith in God’s sovereignty over all political orders. Romans 13 certainly places a strong emphasis on following laws and paying taxes regardless of who is in power,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
And 2 Timothy 2 orders prayer that reflects faithful integrity and God’s sovereignty: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
The entire New Testament reveals that consistent pattern: a minority faith traversing situations of persecution, clinging to faithfulness and trusting in the sovereign God. That which might be called “just,” be it the protection of the innocents (children, the poor, the sojourner), the gathering and distribution of aid, healing, and so on were all ministrations of the church. They never waited on the state for justice, and when they interacted with the state it was always with a view to Gospel ministry, be that King Agrippa, the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Centurion, or the Roman authorities to whom Paul appealed for his protection. Christian leadership in those days surely would’ve longed for a freedom-oriented liberalism, one that was not hounding Christians because they did not swear fealty to the Roman gods.
The entire bending of the Scriptures to fit a nationalistic or even modern Democratic/Republican mindset requires an assumption of power. “What do we do if we are in charge? Well, we would do X. So therefore we MUST have power to do X.” The problem is, whatever X might be is NOT dependent on the will of Man if it is a Christian thing. Christian things are of Christ and powered by the Spirit. Christianity does not, has not, and will never require the power of the state to do the things it needs done. Suggesting so actually reduces faith in the sovereign God, putting emphasis on man’s work to accomplish “Christian Thing X” instead of knowing that “Christian Things A to Z” are all God’s purview.
At best, Christians in power, Christians in democracies where powers to vote are given, ought to seek to vote for the people who seem most filled with wisdom and knowledge to maintain peace, who do not lie, and who pursue policies which provide the most freedom for peaceable Christians to pursue their faith and lives. Going beyond this to a complete theocratic order, a complete set of biblical principles that ought to define a nation’s policies (which Grudem does, and I hate), or a determinative method of being a “Christian” nation certain moves us past the Bible and requires a post-biblical understanding of Christian power as expressed in history.
I am personally completely persuaded that our discontents with liberalism have everything to do with its adoption at a personal and theological level and little to do with the political. If anything, the political hatred of liberalism is a projection of failure in the context of our faith communities to live lives that reflect the communitarian nature of our faith.
Liberal Democracy may well be the best political system we can hope for in a fallen world, but it is a miserable way of living on a personal level. That is to say, if our focus is on personal freedom to maximize personal pleasure, we will find ourselves adrift in a meaningless world constant chasing joy that we never catch, love that never settles, and hope that dissipates as soon as we grasp it.
Luther summarized the Christian life in a masterful work I hope you will pick up and read:
“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”
Luther’s point was deeply theological: “From these considerations any one may clearly see how a Christian man is free from all things; so that he needs no works in order to be justified and saved, but receives these gifts in abundance from faith alone.” Our salvation and our full life in Christ is given to us as a gracious gift received through our faith. All that satisfies is given. All that fulfills is free. These inner freedom, wrought of the Spirit, leads us to then control the outer man (our flesh, our inclinations, our strength, etc) for the benefit of God and others.
Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other moderate discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do if it is not kept under.”
All that we do as Protestants is in gratitude for the salvation received. As he summarizes:
“Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.”
Lest we think that Luther here is leaving out the political, he clarifies: “Such are the works which Paul inculcated; that Christians should be subject to principalities and powers, and ready to every good work (Tit. iii. 1); not that they may be justified by these things, for they are already justified by faith, but that in liberty of spirit they may thus be the servants of others, and subject to powers, obeying their will out of gratuitous love.” Even our allegiance to the government and service to it comes from a heart made clear already. It is not earning anything. There is no salvific power in advocacy, politics, or governing. Christian Thing X is done by God. Christians can merely respond to the free salvation given by way of gracious and loving service.
Luther gives us a clear stating of his principles here as a rule:
We give this rule: the good things which we have from God ought to flow from one to another, and become common to all, so that every one of us may, as it were, put on his neighbor, and so behave towards him its if he were himself in his place.
This rule cannot be created or enforced by government authority. But so much of what we do through our American governance is in fact an attempt to replicate this rule at a national or state level. Instead of loving faithful service at a personal level which both fulfills our souls and blesses our neighbors, we seek to force the government to do what we think God wants. This work — seeking the fulfillment of God’s will for us by making the government do it on our behalf — is soul-draining and fosters hatred between neighbors. Both parties seem hell-bent on shrinking the power of government and rather seem intent on expanding it and using it (that power) on behalf of their chosen causes. Instead of making politics less important and the personal life more important (and thus more fulfilling as we see we are all needed), we are making politics paramount and the personal more and more meaningless. The discontent of liberal democracy is that we have internalized it rather than let it stay in its place, where it belongs, as a governing system rather than a personal moral order.
I pray critics of liberalism will consider the historical and theological affirmations above, and rightly direct their ire toward the internalized liberalism that is ruining our communities and families, for the solution to that is not more government control, but more adherence to a fulsome Protestant vision for the healthy Christian life:
“We conclude therefore that a Christian man does not live in himself, but in Christ, and in his neighbor, or else is no Christian; in Christ by faith, in his neighbor by love.”