There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by in which there isn’t some cultural event or tragedy that exposes the deep divide in our country between liberals and conservatives. There are deep spiritual forces at work, so that isn’t a simplistic party-line endorsement of anybody. But in so far as the divide causes us to see one another as aliens from different planets with less and less in common, we can do worse things than try to provide interpretations of our values in hope of actual communication.
So what follows is me trying to sketch something of an interpretive key to liberalism. While I offer some criticism and interaction below, my primary aim is to try to understand and explain how the liberal worldview works. The dominant worldview in the West is liberalism, and if conservative Christians are to be faithful witnesses of Jesus in our culture, we need to understand this worldview. If we are to understand what is going on with school boards requiring boys be given access to girls’ locker rooms, the furious demand for “marriage equality” for sodomites, or even the bleeding heart appeals for the necessity of tax supported access to abortion for women’s rights, we need to understand the liberal worldview. Like any religion or worldview, it’s adherents are not monolithic. You cannot pin up a picture of Pope Francis or Billy Graham or a Westboro Baptist and insist that this represents all Christians everywhere. But admitting a spectrum and variation doesn’t obliterate our ability to generalize truthfully.
So what is liberalism? Modern liberalism is faith in the power and supreme goodness of equality. Equality is the absolute virtue and for a growing majority of adherents the only absolute. Classical liberalism sought to hold freedom and equality together as twin virtues, even functioning to balance one another out, but as the prescient Alexander de Tocqueville foretold in regard to the American experiment in general, equality has gradually won out. As Kirsten Powers outlines in her recent book, many within the liberal world are learning the hard way that sola equality is the new orthodoxy. The older liberal sympathies for freedom of speech and freedom of religion and the like must be subordinated to the ultimate ideal of equality. In reality, modern liberals would not say they have abandoned the goal of freedom altogether, but it has for all intents and purposes been subsumed under the heading of equality. In modern liberalism, equality is freedom.
So what are the tenets of liberalism?
First, there is faith in the inherent goodness of man and (related) a belief in progress and inevitable improvement of the human species and all natural life. Speaking of which, liberalism is largely a naturalistic and materialistic worldview. This is one of the primary problems with the virtue of freedom, it has a pesky tendency to transcend particular circumstances. But transcendence is a form of hierarchy, absolutism, and therefore is a threat to true equality. Equality is immediate, material, right in front of you. Equality at least has an appearance of measurability. Freedom is more evasive, harder to define, and therefore, harder to measure and quantify. But if freedom is equality, then you can judge a man’s freedom by his relative sense of equality.
This necessarily means that liberalism is a highly subjective worldview. It values the perceptions and feelings of individuals highly. And to the extent that individuals or communities or cultures feel marginalized, unheard, undervalued, liberalism believes that true freedom and progress cannot be made until every voice is heard, and therefore all inequalities must be counterbalanced. This is the feminist project, the black power project, the multiculturalism project, affirmative action, homosexual marriage, abortion rights, the special treatment of Islam, welfare and government aid programs, as well as enthusiastic government regulation, especially in economic matters. The common thread holding them all together is the commitment to equality. The dominant race, the dominant voices, the dominant money, the dominant religions must be counterbalanced by the marginalized. The victims of the dominant voices must be afforded special protections, additional opportunities, special grace. And this is why Christian florists and bakers can be sacrificed to this common good of equality. This is why some freedom of speech can be sacrificed to the freedom of equality. The powerful can afford to lose some of their influence for the sake of the underprivileged.
Because liberalism is materialistic it has an inherent tendency toward anti-intellectualism. Note well, I say a tendency — but because the image of God is not easily obliterated, it is not entirely anti-intellectual. This tendency can be seen in the gradual sublimation of freedom into the virtue of equality. Liberalism places a great deal of faith in science in so far as it prizes the immediate, physical evidence, but generalizations (also part of science) are viewed suspiciously because they cannot account for the margins, the exceptions, the anomalies, the minorities (obviously). But this is precisely what reason and logic are all about. They are inherently tools of generalization. Thus, again, while Kirsten Powers and others seek to carve out room for a more classical approach to liberalism they are finding themselves at odds with absolute equality in so far as they trace a more nuanced narrative than insistence on equality now, equality alone, sola aequalitas. Freedom requires more reasoning, thoughtful analysis, over time, generalizing, etc, but that very process would threaten the freedom of anyone who doesn’t want to be defined by those definitions or generalizations. So there we are.
When reason and logic tend to be viewed suspiciously, when rational argument and disagreement and debate are seen as tools of the enemy, weapons of the hierarchy for oppression and prejudice, what you are left with are various forms of emotional appeal. At it’s most benign, it’s the teary-eyed appeals of the gay couples sincerely insisting that they just want what their heterosexual neighbors have. At worst, it’s outrage and mob tactics whether on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the inner city of Twitter, or the bald authoritarian fiats from men in black robes. And any rhetorical infelicities can be forgiven when the aim is equality, subverting the dominant voices and paradigms and giving voice to their victims. Materialism admits some broken bones and bloody lips. Progress always requires some sacrifices. And no need to explain. Equality covers a multitude of sins.
Finally, perhaps you can see why relativism is so central to liberalism. All absolutes (other than equality) are generalizations that suppress equality. All claims to absolute truth, absolute goodness are claims to power, claims to authority, and therefore they are threats to the inherent goodness and value of individuals and therefore threats to their equal opportunity to happiness and fulfillment in this world. And to the extent that individuals feel undervalued or lack the same privileges as others, we are all suffering from their lack of contribution. Relativism, therefore, is the liberal ethic of freedom. It seeks to ensure that no paradigm or value may dominate another. It insists that all values be submitted to the primacy of equality. All views, all experiences, all values, all traditions must be allowed a place at the table, and those views and personalities and values that have tended to be influential and dominant must be regulated or penalized to level the social playing field. According to liberalism, this is freedom.
We really must do more thinking and praying about how the gospel speaks into the liberal worldview. This is the dominant worldview now, and even among many professing Christians elements of this paradigm have permeated their thinking. One reason for that is that there are some overlapping concerns. Jesus did preach the gospel to the poor, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers, the marginalized. Jesus did condemn the rich and powerful. The gospel does proclaim freedom and equality. So how does Christianity differ from liberalism? Why can’t liberalism deliver on its promises of equality and freedom?
Ultimately, I believe modern liberalism fails (and will fail) because it doesn’t account for the fullness of human experience. Front and center is the problem of sin and evil and justice. If everything is just matter, atoms and chemicals doing what atoms and chemicals do, then there is no meaning to our actions, no meaning to the pain you feel, no meaning to that guilt, to that shame, — and that deep yearning for justice, that overwhelming sense of forgiveness you long for, that relief that washed over you that one time? Yeah, that was about as meaningful as the sound an empty ketchup bottle makes. Liberalism sucks the grace out of life. It ultimately denies human beings the gift of anything meaningful and transcendent and truly beautiful. But the truth will out. The truth sets men free. And those of us that have tasted true freedom and grace can afford to patiently plead with our neighbors to come taste and see that the Lord is good.