Liberalism Reconstituted

Can Liberalism Be Saved? Part II

In my previous essay on the daunting historical challenge of reconstituting liberalism, I argued that political liberalism has worked out its constitutive principles, and we can see  in everything from spirit-sapping statism to the tragedies, monstrosities, and absurdities of the sexual revolution that it has not ended well. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen argues, that “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded” (179). The Enlightenment political project, for all its considerable merits, was doomed from the start as it built itself on an ultimately unstable foundation of metaphysically truncated, morally thin, autonomous individualism. This raises the question, however: has liberalism had its day or can it be reconstituted on more soundly Biblical grounds? 

But, apart from political Islam, there are now only two alternatives to the liberal experiment: surrender to the scientific, thus unaccountable, and consciously statist administration of human affairs or a reconsideration of the political implications of Christianity with the benefit of our experience of the last 400 years. Is there a specifically Christian liberal republicanism that supplies what is morally and metaphysically absent in the Enlightenment account? If the goods of liberalism are indeed good, they must have a foundation in Biblical teaching.

Consider one of our most basic understandings of political justice. We find it impossible to separate the concept of justice from that of rights, but the problem for any Christian rights doctrine is that the Bible makes no mention of rights aside from Paul’s legal rights as a Roman citizen. People generally affirm a Christian basis of rights but, when not referring vaguely to the image of God, they typically offer John Locke’s account, though without closely examining its relation to Biblical teaching. For example, in Locke’s seventeenth century social contract theory, he replaces Eden with the state of nature as an origins story. This was intentional. Man is thus not God’s image-bearer but his property, and industrious rationality replaces love for God and neighbor as the defining human virtue. Our business as human beings, therefore, is a peaceful life of wealth production, to multiply property and enjoy it forever, and our rights center on our individual pursuit of these ends without regard to our larger moral and spiritual obligations. Does adoption of the rights language corrupt traditional Christian notions of justice? Is the vocabulary of rights the nose-of-the-modernist-camel poking into the Christian moral tent? Or is there a legitimate way to express notions of authority and justice in these terms?

A Christian theory of liberal democratic republicanism must start with a Christian cosmology and a theological anthropology that are rooted in the Trinitarian God’s creation of all things, his creation of man in his image, and man’s fall into sin. As sovereign creator, God is the ultimate authority in all matters and the source of all human authority.

We human beings are neither sovereign over ourselves nor God’s mere workmanship and property. We are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26). At the very least, this indicates an equally possessed, special value among God’s creatures. Beyond that, the fact that God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and thus “is love” (I John 4:8), indicates that these special creatures were made for love, relationality, community with one another, and communion with God. The “divine attribute” view of the imago Dei identifies the “image,” what may be seen of God’s likeness in us, as intelligence and moral culpability. This is certainly true of us, but the consensus among faithful scholars today is the functional view: the image is that not of a sovereign master but of vice-regent. Man was made for righteousness and rule, to be like God in his character and act like him in his place, taking stewardly dominion by creatively extending God’s rule in his name.

This “creation mandate” for us to rule God’s world as image-bearing vice-regents means that from the start we were made for individual self-government (Gen. 1:28). As such, the first government God established was each person—Adam and his descendants, both men and women—over the creation in all its spheres: domestic, agricultural, intellectual, industrial, artistic, recreational, and vocational of every sort. As this is the primary and original form of rule, civil government, coming later and in response chiefly to moral complications stemming from the fall, must have a strictly subsidiary role. That is, God established it after radical moral decline and considerable social development in support of the original self-government with which he invested each one of us.

As each person’s authority to direct himself in his dominion responsibilities is primary and always presupposed presupposed, civil authority requires consent in order not to compromise that. Each of us, under God and in his service, is fundamentally in charge of his or her faithful labors in life, and so no one has the authority to supplant that self-sovereignty and redirect anyone’s efforts without his or her consent, whether tacit or explicit. Civil government cannot exercise our dominion for us except where we judge that its work would facilitate our efforts, doing what in principle we cannot do—whether individually or in association with others—such as build and maintain local roads or defend against invaders.

Biblical government is, therefore, limited government, limited not only by the consent of the governed, but also by its divine purpose, which is to help enable people in the exercise of their mature capacities for self-government in their various spheres, to help them only where it is necessary to the exercise of their rightful liberty in godliness. In this sense, it is also a “liberal” government—serving the liberty of the governed—in agreement with some of the doctrines of modern liberalism, though on entirely different grounds. For this reason, it does not carry with it the problem of human autonomy that leads theoretically to nihilism and practically, at best, to a benevolent, omni-provisional state over docile, infantilized subjects.

A Biblical liberalism would, however, qualify liberty with substantive obligation. God’s first words to his human creation were a command: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…” (Gen. 1:28). He then announced a liberty: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,” though it came with the qualification that forbade Adam to eat of a particular tree. Thus, Adam’s liberty had a context: God’s command to serve him faithfully as vice-regent. Liberty understood Biblically has, therefore, an identifiable end, namely, fulfilling our obligations as God’s image-bearing, creative agents.

Biblical liberty is also premised on our creation as fundamentally relational. The fact that God is a Trinity of mutually loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and thus “is love” (I John 4:8), and he made us in his own image, indicates that we were made for love, relationality, community with one another, and communion with God.

The life of liberty for which we were created is, therefore, neither individual license nor any kind of personal self-determination. Nor is it, as John Locke bequeathed it to us, doing as one pleases “within the bounds of the law of nature” which teaches everyone first and foremost “to preserve himself,” and then, “when his own preservation comes not in competition, … to preserve the rest of mankind.” Rather, we were bound from the start by the moral law which is, in a word, love (Mark 12:30-31), not inwardly to self, but upward to God and outward to neighbors, and this in community with one another. That is to say, God’s calling for us was not securing one’s life in self-preservation, but giving it away in self-sacrifice, though it is in losing one’s life that one finds it (Mark 8:35). Accordingly, it is the freedom to live in this way that government—which God gives us for our good—should preserve for us. What liberty is apart from sin and prior to government, every government is obliged to secure.

It is common for Christians who reject the Lockean thesis to go where Locke declined to go in grounding a doctrine of rights—the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff finds human value and inherent rights in the imago, but alas, in his observation, we do not all possess that image in equal measure despite all being made in God’s image (Justice, Rights and Wrongs; 352, 360, 370). Some people are more intelligent than others and some less morally culpable. Here he has in mind, for example, the mentally handicapped. But happily, he tells us, because we are all equally loved by God and thus of equal worth, we all have the equal right to be treated with dignity and respect by one another. All that this gives us, however, is an ethical teaching, a justification for broad, unspecified, moral rights. It is certainly true that the imago is the basis for all people treating each other with love, but it requires more to get from that fact to political rights, to specific claims against government authority that direct and limit that authority.

One may argue from the imago to the sovereignty of each person over himself and from there to a social contract that constitutes government and the political rights that no government can justly violate. But that would be merely the modern Enlightenment argument with a foundation in the image of God. It leaves political community as something entirely of human invention,  not only, as Samuel Rutherford put it in Lex, Rex (The Law and the Prince), in modo, in the way it was appointed, but also in radice, in its fundamental, moral institution. Under that theory, man is not naturally social, and thus he could not be the work of a Trinitarian Creator. Nonetheless, there is a huge difference between reasoning to the social contract from the imago Dei rather than from individual natural right, the difference being human purpose from God in the imago.

While the imago Dei obliges government to secure the consent of the governed even as it avoids the Enlightenment doctrine of human autonomy, it cannot provide a basis for specific political rights. That basis must reside in God’s original establishment of government and in his purpose for it—in the divine will, not the human nature. Because government comes to us by God’s establishment, our rights against it must also come by God’s government-establishing will.

If “there is no authority except from God,” and government is “God’s servant for your good,” then we have a right to receive the services God intends to give us by our governments (Rom. 13:1, 4). Consider this analogy from an ordinary community. The local civic authority establishes a police force to protect everyone within its boundaries with security against criminal activity. Accordingly, everyone within the realm of that civic authority has a “right” to police protection. The police may not justly use their power to pillage or otherwise abuse people. They may not elect to exclude some people from their services based on an invidious or self-serving distinction. Those who were to find themselves denied the service that the higher power appointed for them may demand the service as a right and may do so based not on anything in themselves, except incidentally, but on the sovereign will of the higher authority that originally established the lower authority, in this case, the police force. Thus, as God, the great High King, has established all earthly, civic authorities for his specific purposes, everyone who lives under their government has a right to the services for which God established them.

One of the virtues of this grounding for rights is that it directs thoughtful attention to God’s purpose for government. Thus, because God gave his government servants to all of us specifically as his human vice-regents, the governed have rights to the competent means for fulfilling their callings—both personal and general. From this we may deduce rights to life and property, as well as to liberty understood as the means necessary or reasonable for fulfilling religious, domestic, and productive pursuits. In other words, people have the right to security in life, health, property, and liberty against neighbors, invaders, and government itself. Liberty in this Biblical understanding is the humanly unimpeded ability to fulfill one’s divine callings. Since government is God’s servant to do us good, but only as God defines good, including our spiritual good as God has revealed it, people also have a right to the government’s reasonable efforts to secure communitywide Sabbath calm, and reasonable legislative attention to addressing moral predators and libertines. Everyone has a right to justice, not only from those governments that consciously understand themselves as God’s servants, but also from unjust governments because God has established them for a purpose they are violating.

One hundred years ago, Paul Valéry, in his essay, “The Crisis of the Mind,” reminded us: “We later civilizations…we too know that we are mortal.” Civilizations and empires and all the ways of men have their rise and fall, their cycles of birth, flourishing, and decline. If seventeenth century, Enlightenment liberalism had been the science of human nature that it claimed to be, there would have been no Rousseau, no Marx, and no Nietzsche to protest its shortcomings. It would not have left us as empty and wandering as we are. Cultural resuscitation comes from returning to either classical or Biblical sources of wisdom. Between these two, there is only one practical choice. There remain yet mercies for Adam’s race in the Christian tradition.

*Image Credit: Wunderstock