One of the questions I’ve received several times in response to my recent post on modern liberalism is the objection that this assumes that Christians can’t be “liberals” or if they are, they must be really bad Christians.
So several follow up thoughts.
First, I did qualify my original post in two ways. I stated very clearly that I recognized that there would be a spectrum of views in liberalism just like there is in the Christian faith itself. One version of liberalism doesn’t define liberalism absolutely for everyone who dons the label. Got that. I also made the distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. In classical liberalism, people are still trying to carve out space for freedom as a transcendent ideal, and therefore, they are assuming other absolutes besides equality. This really is important and significant. Depending on what their standard is for determining freedom, we may not actually be as far apart as it may seem.
But let’s walk this out a little further. Can a good, sincere Christian be a “liberal” in modern America? Yes, of course, but in so doing he must be a bad liberal. If he is a good liberal then he must be a bad Christian. And what I mean is that a faithful follower of Jesus may not participate in modern liberalism, as represented by the hard left demand for the silencing of all opposing view points by means of mobs, threats, fines, and internet temper tantrums. Neither may a faithful follower of Jesus go along meekly with those tactics. Now if your name is Kirsten Powers and you are busy critiquing your own side of the aisle and arguing vigorously for actual discussion and debate, then I’m not talking about you. But the current orthodoxy in liberalism is this hard leftist fundamentalism, and if you’re even a little bit vocal about protecting the freedom of speech and freedom of conscience of conservative Christians against this leftist hazing and shaming, you will quickly find yourself on the outs of the liberal project. It doesn’t matter if you’re a registered democrat or support Obamacare, if you’re pro-life and have the guts to call Obergefell anything other than a victory for civil rights and progress, then you’re an enemy of liberalism. You’re a bad liberal. This is not me saying that you’re a bad liberal; this is the liberals who are running the show saying they don’t want you.
And that should raise the obvious question: Why?
The answer has to do with fixed standards. Absolutes. In modern liberalism, absolutism is synonymous with extremism. When people believe in absolutes they fly passenger jets into buildings. When people believe in absolutes, they go on shooting rampages at abortion clinics. At least that’s the concern, the fear. This is why the enemy of freedom is absolutism (i.e. extremism), and consequently why relativism is the path to liberty. Relativism promises to make room for differences. The gospel of relativism is that when we do not take our differences so seriously, we will be nicer and more respectful to others and everyone will have a chance to be happy and free. When people believe in absolutes, and believe they are absolutely right, they impose those absolutes on others and people start getting killed.
Of course the liberals are talking about something that is partially true. If you take Allah and the Koran seriously, absolutely, you will be “radicalized” as the lady on NPR told me the other morning about the husband and wife from San Bernardino who went on the shooting spree. The liberal concern is that absolutes tend to radicalize people, and radicals frequently turn violent. This helps explain the Planned Parenthood shooting narrative as well. Robert Lewis Dear goes on a rampage at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood because of the extreme rhetoric of the pro-life movement. When you believe in absolute truth and ethics, it leads to violence. See?
So what do we say to this? At least two things. First, there is no evidence that secular relativism or liberalism can guarantee a less violent society. Arguably liberalism has given us the riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, not to mention Robes Pierre and the French Revolution. The hard leftist turn that Powers documents in her book may not be completely radicalized yet, but it’s well on its way. In other words, absolutes are inescapable and relativism is fully capable of being radicalized. Relativists that don’t see this happening are either extremely naive or insincere. Will you make room for white supremacists? Will you make room for the Indian custom of Sati? What about female genital mutilation? Even the most ardent relativists and multiculturalists must enforce certain norms and punish certain sorts of behavior.
All of this is related to the fundamentalism of materialistic evolution as well. Explanations for existence, cause and effect, or even progress must remain materialistic or else we are giving into the demands of unseen, unmeasured, uncontrolled theories of morality, righteousness, and inevitably, absolutes. According to modern social liberalism, transcendent virtues and meaning are part of the threat to freedom and liberty. While there may be a spectrum of views within the evolutionary milieu, there’s at least this “moral” ground by which many may resist all creationist protests. If creationism depends upon the unseen and untestable presence of an immaterial God, then science (it is feared) can also become the tool for radicals and extremists. Better the humility (humiliation?) of evolution and the clear relativism inherent in the theory. Better finding an immediate, relatively shallow meaning to life that is not transcendent, not ultimate, not absolute. It’s better for everyone that way. But is it really?
Historically, conservatives have defended various traditional orders or hierarchies. Many of those orders come and go, and some of them really needed to go. And some of them still need to be dismantled. But the primary one that gives any of them any semblance of plausibility is the order of reality, traditionally summarized in the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. If you believe that there is such a thing, welcome to the land of conservatives. We’re a motley crew, and we have many divergent ideas and convictions. And some of them are really quite bad. But the primary thing we believe in is reality and meaning that transcends this moment in time, that reaches back into the past and forward into the future. Many of us believe this because we believe that God created the world in the beginning, and He sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world to take away our sins and remake all things. In other words, because we believe in God and He has spoken to us in His Word and in the natural world, there is a standard to appeal to. And therefore, we have hope that even our bad ideas will be exposed and put away. But for the modern liberal, it is that very idea — that there is a standard — that is in the process of being put away and banned from the public square. And the unfortunate thing is that this is the banning of all accountability, the excising of the possibility of finding goodness and truth.
Evolution and relativism may promise a brief and bland equality, but it can and will radicalize on its own. You cannot ban absolutes from the world without authorization, without authority, and ultimately, without force. But then how can liberalism promise us a better world than ISIS?
Ultimately anyone committed to transcendent truth and goodness recognizes that there is much good and truth to conserve from the past, but there’s also a lot of junk to jettison. Commitment to truth and goodness isn’t some kind of mindless obsession with old stuff. Lots of old stuff is worn out, broken, and was foolish to begin with. Everything comes down to believing in real value. Real value remains real. Something of real value in 1445 still has real value in 2045. Gravity is still a valuable reality. The love of a man and a woman bound by vows is still valuable. The forgiveness of sins still makes things right. But you can’t throw out real value and then expect people to value what you think or believe. And while it may appear noble to brandish the foam sword of relativism, in the end it’s no use against the bombs and bullets of radical Islam. The only thing strong enough to protect all of us is to find something fixed and absolute that really is absolutely good and true and beautiful. The conservative impulse is to believe that the reason our hearts long for that is because He is really there and He is goodness all the way down.