A liberal society?
What is liberalism? And, what is it not? As we understand it, liberalism is much more than esteem for personal liberty, which in itself is legitimate. We value the liberties guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United States’ Bill of Rights, and in similar documents. Indeed, these are the bedrock to constitutional government.
However, liberalism as an ideology is based on the assumption that all communities are fundamentally voluntary associations whose tasks are determined, not by the nature of the communities themselves, but by the wills of the individuals making them up. This means that in theory, at least, there are no intrinsic differences between family, marriage, school, business enterprise, labour union, church and state, all of which are reducible to the whims of their members. If the local bird watchers’ society is voluntary, with members coming and going at will, why shouldn’t marriage or the state be the same? Liberals have undertaken to extend this voluntary principle as widely as possible throughout society.
So, what is a liberal society? Or can there even be such a thing? The effects of liberalism are tenacious and enduring. Beginning with the notion of social contract in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, liberalism has made a huge impact on the development of the modern and postmodern worlds. Among its positive features is the heightened consciousness of the place of the individual as distinct from the group—something absent from nearly all pre-modern cultures. This has led to an emphasis on the protection of human rights around the globe, as found in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It has also led followers to work for the liberation of people caught up in oppressive régimes that fail to respect these rights. The civil rights movement of nearly fifty years ago in the United States was a positive legacy of this. Thinkers such as Brian Tierney, Oliver O’Donovan, and a growing body of literature on mediaeval and early modern political thought show that virtually all the liberal watchwords of today, such as freedom, rights and equality, draw from a deep well of Christian social thought informed by the Scriptures. In spite of its followers’ efforts to distance themselves from this tradition, or more likely because of the tradition’s enduring strength, liberalism has managed, by God’s common grace, to produce good fruit.
Yet it is not difficult to recognize liberalism’s deficiencies. At its worst, liberalism manifests little concern for what might be called the commons—namely, the shared heritage of the citizenry not subject to individual or nonstate corporate ownership. Everything from public parks and buildings to air and water do not easily fit into especially the early liberal framework, with its glorification of what the late C. B. MacPherson famously labelled possessive individualism. Contemporary libertarians, applying the logic of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” assume that a spontaneous order will emerge out of the workings of the market so as to produce a net benefit for the society as a whole. When this doesn’t occur as readily as expected, liberalism is forced to change its spots, as it were.
In accordance with its effort to reduce a variety of communities to mere voluntary associations, liberalism has difficulty accounting for the distinctive character of institutions such as marriage, family, and state. If the state is a voluntary association formed by contracting individuals, then there is nothing especially unique about it. More to the point, it has no intrinsic jural task that might distinguish it from other communities. The net result is that citizens expect either too little or too much from it, because they lack a norm for assessing its activities.
Finally, most liberals attempt to consign ultimate religious convictions to the private realm, ostensibly reserving the public realm for those matters universally accessible to human reason. However, if liberalism is rooted in a contestable series of assumptions based on a particularizing worldview, then liberals have done nothing more than to banish the convictions of others while privileging their own within the public realm. That this is tantamount to a new established religion has largely escaped the adherents of liberalism, whose monopolistic pretensions can only amount to a subtle miscarriage of justice in any number of areas, but especially in education.
That said, however, it is not strictly correct to characterize western society in its totality as liberal, as though that single adjective could possibly sum up everything about it. Liberalism may be a powerful cultural and political force, but it does not and cannot constitute an order as such. It may negatively impact a variety of human communities and relationships, but it cannot suppress the diversity of human society we experience as a constant reality. To imply this is to deny that our world is sustained by and belongs to God.
We live in a world at once corrupt, yet blessed in some measure by the peace given us by God’s sustaining hand. Liberalism’s corrosive tendencies confirm, in Augustine’s words, that we “are severed from that tranquility of order in which there is no disturbance.” Despite this, we still experience “that peace which arises from being in harmony with the natural order of things” (City of God XIX.13). The City of God and the City of Man are tightly intertwined. This makes it impossible to extricate liberalism’s blessings from its deleterious influence on states, families, markets, and, indeed, the entire culture.
Living “wonderful and confessedly striking” lives
So how does one go about living under the influence of such a pervasive and powerful idolatry while remaining faithful to the gospel? Jeremiah 29 provides some guidance. Speaking to God’s covenant people exiled in Babylon, the prophet instructs the Israelites to:
[b]uild houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
For Christians living in North America, the notion of being in exile may not seem immediately relevant. To be sure, we are still a covenant people, but we are not defined by ethnicity or attachment to a particular piece of land. Nevertheless, Augustine’s recognition that we are severed from the tranquility of order—and even our own recognition of the brokenness of our communities—should confirm the continuing reality of exile. The need to pray continually to the LORD for the larger communities in which we find ourselves—as well as acting on their behalf—is at the heart of living as a Christian in a society dominated by any secular ideology, including liberalism.
The letter to Diognetus, written long before the advent of liberalism (indeed, before Christianity became the dominant force in the Roman Empire) offers valuable insight into how we might go about living faithfully in the midst of pervasive unbelief:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a particular form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked by any singularity . . . But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.
Living for the welfare of the city
Christians should aim then to live “wonderful and confessedly striking” lives, even in the midst of a society shaped by a liberalism whose influence we cannot expect to fade away any time soon. We have no alternative but to formulate strategies for living with it. Christians today must above all attest to the astonishing reality that Christ has come to redeem his Creation. Our lives should strike hard at the heart of the idols of our time and call them to account, not with malice, but with a love and patience that show the reality of Christ’s kingdom come. The following are but a few examples of how Christians can live for the welfare of their respective cities:
- Nurture marriages for the long term. It’s easy to fall in love. It’s not easy to nurture a commitment over the long term in the midst of changing feelings, especially in a society trumpeting the supposed virtues of the authentic self. Among the small things that can be done in the wedding ceremony is for couples to follow an established liturgy and avoid the use of personalized marriage vows, which tend to communicate that each couple is reinventing marriage for its own purposes. Furthermore, while emphasis on developing communication skills is a good thing, the more important emphasis is on sustaining the commitment to the marriage itself—an effort that will enrich the spouses through mutual love and fidelity, as well as enhancing personal authenticity.
- Have children and raise families. Nowadays the decision to have children is treated as little more than one lifestyle option among many. But giving birth to and raising children is not just a personal choice, it is a central means of fulfilling a part of the cultural mandate that is insufficiently emphasized nowadays: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). We ourselves will inevitably die; our children will take our places and carry on the work of God’s kingdom. But this presupposes that there will indeed be a next generation.
- Become committed, active members of your church community. Many Christians have no difficulty attending a church as long as it does not imply official membership or some sort of tangible commitment to a particular body or denomination. Church membership has, for some, become an encumbrance because it requires them to place themselves under an authority that might conflict with their own idiosyncratic understanding of the faith. However, as a recent study by the Work Research Foundation has shown, churches as institutions of the Word are necessary to the welfare of the city. One of the best ways to work against the social corrosion of liberal individualism is to be part of an ecclesial body tying us to the apostolic tradition and transcending our personal faith, while strengthening and giving institutional space for that faith to act—and to change society!
- Join a Christian labour union or another work-related association. Often Christians either endorse existing economic structures or consider them beyond the scope of proper Christian responsibility. Joining a labour union (such as Christian Labour Association of Canada) places one in a community struggling firsthand with the realities of economic life in a society dominated by liberalism. Being part of such a body lends communal support and resources to address the injustices and defects inherent in liberalism’s understanding of work and economic life in general, as well as providing structural avenues for change.
Become involved in your country’s political life. This will entail involvement in local, state/provincial, or federal governments, but probably not all three. A national/federal government has more visibility, both domestically and internationally, but it is at the local level that we are more likely to make an impact and to experience the results of our efforts in our own neighbourhoods. Political involvement may call for joining a political party and actively campaigning for public office. Or it may manifest itself in lobbying from outside government itself. To fulfill our responsibilities as citizens is to carry out a large part of the divine mandate to do justice.
Allow all your work to be influenced by your faith. If liberalism attempts to force issues of faith into private compartments, and if this curtails the scope of the redeeming power of faith in Christ, integrating our work with our faith is perhaps the best way to address the deficiencies of liberalism. To do this we must study both Scripture and God’s world in the light of Scripture. We must pray constantly and involve ourselves in communities seeking to act as channels of God’s peace. In all of this, however, we boldly confess that the world’s redemption is accomplished in Jesus Christ. The words of the late Pope John Paul II offer a way forward:
How modest must [the Christian] be in regard to his own limited insight! How quick must he be to learn, and how slow to condemn! One of the constant temptations in every age, even among Christians, is to make oneself the norm of truth. In an age of pervasive individualism, this temptation takes a variety of forms. But the mark of those who are “in the truth” is the ability to love humbly. This is what God’s word teaches us: truth is expressed in love…As we seek the truth together, with respect for the conscience of others, we will be able to go forward along the paths of freedom which lead to peace, in accordance with the will of God.