In his essay, “Wanted for Arrest: Followers of Jesus Christ,” Dennis Dillon asks, “Are we at the beginning of de-Christianization, as France was in the 1700s?” No, I reply; rather, we’re nearing the end. Liberalism, the dominant school of European political philosophy for three centuries or more, was born amid a revolution against a centuries-old Christian order and has subconsciously sought to destroy its remnants ever since. Over the same time, Western Christianity has been losing cohesion and coherence, subverted from within as Christians absorbed liberalism’s philosophical commitments. Today has been over 500 years in the making.
You might even say that liberalism is the original “cancel culture.”
What This Essay Isn’t About
First, when I say liberalism, I’m not speaking of the ideology of the center-left, for which I prefer the term progressivism. Rather, I’m thinking of the entire liberal ideological spectrum, which embraces progressivism, conservatism, libertarianism, anarchism, and (with caveats) socialism. They all have points of contact with each other, though their emphases differ. As the name implies, the main principle of liberalism is the belief that people are happiest when choices are maximized and restrictions minimized: “That government is best which governs the least.” (This belief may be false, but the paradox of choice isn’t our concern right now.)
Second, by indicting liberalism, I am not arguing that we should scrap the current American political system, certainly not for a restorationist “throne and altar” government. On the practical side, even if we could all be convinced such a government was desirable, our numbers are now too weak and divided to make it a reality. On the theological-philosophical side, as I hope to make clear, it’s starting from the wrong end of things. It’s designing an elaborate steering wheel for a car that needs extensive drive train, frame, and bodywork before it’s even drivable, let alone showcase-worthy.
So far as the problem expresses itself in our governing system, it does so in the First Amendment’s freedom of religion. On the one hand, it allows us Catholics to not only reside in the U.S. but to be citizens—to vote, to hold public office, even to become President. On the other, the “wall of separation between Church and State” is also a wall between political power and moral/spiritual authority. Religious pluralism ensures that “religion” rarely speaks with a clear, unified voice, let alone authoritatively. And no wonder, for liberalism is the child of the Protestant Reformation.
The Catholic Imagination
To understand this point, we have to begin with what essayist Charles Péguy called the “Catholic mystique” and sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley identified as the “Catholic imagination.” In the Catholic cosmic view, there is no clear barrier between the spiritual and material worlds. The eternal surrounds, suffuses, and guides the temporal. God can be specially present in certain places and at certain times because He is radically in all places at all times. Such a world can admit choirs of angels and clouds of witnesses or saints; it can allow unbelieving governors to be instruments of divine justice (cf. Romans 13:1-7).
This sacramental view of the world has cognates in many religions, even those that don’t have gods or divine spirits as such. (Think of Taoism, for example.) It’s a much older and, may I say, more humane way of seeing the world, which may partially explain why Catholic and Orthodox Christianity found homes in widely diverse cultures. Greeley’s work demonstrated that such a view persisted among “cradle Catholics,” especially those educated in parochial schools, at least up until the 1990s. Whether it’s as prevalent among Catholics today, I don’t know.
In Péguy’s theory, politique is “the degradation of mystique to merely practical policy and the further corruption of policy to power” (James Matthew Wilson). Arguably, the Latin-rite Church was already far down this path by the 15th century. To philosopher Hannah Arendt, the use of power is a sign that authority has failed. In this sense, the Church’s resort to persecutions and inquisitions was a sign that her authority was waning. Martin Luther’s challenge to the bishops’ authority could never have succeeded had not both temporal rulers and lay scholars long grown restive and resentful under the Church’s suzerainty.
The Reaction and Rout
Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. (G. K. Chesterton)
Luther’s and Henry VIII’s aims were, in retrospect, fairly straightforward and conservative: to arrogate the Church’s authority to themselves. However, by the end of the 17th century, the Reformation and the Enlightenment had become rejections not only of the Catholic Church but of the entire era she represented. Over time, the Enlightened would create an enduring myth of the Middle Ages as a period of political oppression, cultural barbarity, and intellectual stultification. Medieval, literally meaning “of the Middle Ages,” would take on overtones of harshness, dulling the period’s bright colors to the gray scale, eliminating all its warmth and joie de vivre.
Thus, while the Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal “high church” traditions tried to preserve as much of the Catholic mystique as possible, the main thrust of the Reformation went to stripping Christianity of its “popish superstitions.” Enter Greeley’s “Protestant imagination”: a world abandoned by God, where miracles had ended with the passing of the Apostles. A world that has no place for guardian angels or patron saints. A world where no human could claim divine authority, whether spiritual or temporal, without question. A world just one step away from questioning whether God exists—a step more and more of the Enlightened took.
The process of irrelevantizing religion began before Luther, with Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s book The Prince advised his patron Cesare Borgia not to let moral scruples prevent him from doing what was necessary to preserve his rule. This anticipated by almost 200 years the atheist Thomas Hobbes’ dictum, “Authority, not truth, writes laws,” conflating authority with power. Hobbes’ Leviathan postulated a “counter-Genesis” (Benjamin Wiker) in which man in his natural state is amoral, autonomous, and self-interested, only creating social groups and communities through necessity. John Locke implicitly accepted Hobbes’ origin story, baking it into liberalism with his “social contract” theory.
The impact of Hobbes’ origin story can’t be overstated. That people exist to live in community with other people, and that community life naturally entails relationships with others that carry with them bonds of moral and social obligation, were always implicit assumptions not only in Jewish and Christian thought but in other pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures as well. Hobbes’ “counter-Genesis” has no more basis in anthropological or archaeological fact than the Garden of Eden. Hobbes’ natural man, in fact, is a sociopath. Yet, as Wiker states, Hobbes’ origin story “is becoming, more and more, the myth by which we live.”
Liberalism Takes Shape
On this side of the liberal tradition, Bernard de Mandeville’s Private Vices, Publick Virtues gave birth to the profit motive and the economists’ premise that rational behavior is self-interested. Locke would incorporate economic advancement as one of the necessities from which the social contract arises. On the other side, Jean-Jacques Rousseau created a second “counter-Genesis” echoing Hobbes’, except that in Rousseau’s myth, government and social structures arose to help the greedy institutionalize socioeconomic inequality. Ironically, these premises would eventually spawn the fratricidal triplets capitalism, socialism, and communism. Liberalism slowly gained philosophical commitments at complete odds with Christianity.
On the religious front, Luther’s and Henry VIII’s attempts to set themselves up as rival popes failed. The same forces that rebelled against Rome rebelled against Canterbury as well. The “divine right of kings” died under the axe that took off Charles I’s head. As anti-Christians educated in liberal philosophies became dominant, the sciences ruthlessly de-mystified the universe and stripped the West of the Catholic imagination. In one sense, European liberalism did the Church a favor by disentangling her from the political order. But the cost it imposed was making Europe infertile ground for evangelization.
Liberalism in America
The Founding Fathers, even the deist Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged the moral and spiritual importance of religion in forming the character of a free people. Arguably, they relied on churches to inculcate civic virtues and self-restraint, as well as a sense of social obligation and the dignity of other persons. However, Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s origin stories had given liberalism an emphasis on the sovereign, autonomous self. That emphasis gradually became more antisocial; rebels, outlaws, and rule-breakers became folk heroes. Against this trend, the Reformation had already compromised religion’s resistance by denying human spiritual authority. It had made every person their own pope.
Having foreclosed cultural unification through religious homogeneity, American thought-leaders, particularly in the North and West, turned to nationalism. Education in Western and American history, especially after it became compulsory, meant the unconscious absorption of the philosophical commitments of liberalism, even among Catholics. In the South, the KKK and the fundamentalist movement subordinated Christianity to maintaining the “Jim Crow” social structure. Liberal Christianity was the upper classes’ attempt to find some accommodation with the intellectual forces cutting God out of human life. However, it simply sped up the reduction of mystique to politique, as nihilism and postmodern critique brought dusk to the Enlightenment.
Liberal Christianity is now proving its social irrelevance by jumping onto every progressive-activist bandwagon the intellectual elite rolls out. At the same time, conservative Christians have become more strongly associated with anti-scientists, ethnonationalists, and conspiracy theorists that the majority of the nation rejects. The corruption of American Christianity by politics is by no means complete. Yet it has progressed sufficiently that the secularization of America is within sight, as politicized religion alienates younger generations growing more disillusioned by politics.
Liberalism, then, has been wearing away at the base of religiosity for more than 300 years by walling off the transcendent and the numinous from our quotidian lives, reducing us to clever, selfish monkeys perpetually squabbling over the bananas. Our proper task, then, is not to create a new form of government or resurrect a “throne and altar” past. Our commission is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). To do that, we have to re-instill the Catholic imagination in minds grown dull, to open materialistic hearts to a God-saturated world.
In the end, systems, societies, and structures are remote abstractions. The people around us are concrete realities. The concrete precedes the abstract. Political organizations are transient, ephemeral things, as is everything else in this universe. We Christians are called to serve each other and love our neighbors without regard to the social or political context in which we live. So long as there are more than five people gathered in a stable group, there is bound to be at least a vestige of politics. But politics is not where religion starts. If anything, that’s where religion ends.