Two Catholics walk into a bar. A third intervenes to ensure that their argument over liberalism — the philosophy of individual rights, consent of the governed, and free markets — can produce the next politically responsible conservative consensus.
Adrian Vermeule, the cradle-Episcopalian-turned-Schmittian-reactionary-professor at Harvard Law School, writes in First Things to urge the Esther option: total dogmatism on a singular end, combined with total flexibility on means. His North Star is always the Church. His means are everything else, including regimes and ideologies. What, after all, are liberalism, democracy, capitalism, socialism, nationalism, and so forth next to Christ crucified?
Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian atheist who last year converted to Catholicism, is a senior writer at Commentary magazine, where he defends democratic capitalism. Markets work and democracies flourish, he argues, so long as they are moored to a Biblical tradition. Compare their millions rescued from poverty and oppression with the bloody histories of the alternatives, and ambivalence toward the differences between political regimes becomes impossible. Claiming John Paul II as his inspiration, Ahmari concludes that “there could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.” If one cares about human suffering, one must insist upon liberal democracy.
In comes the Catholic editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, with what at first seems like a fierce attack on Ahmari and a defense of his contributors, especially Vermeule. Reno lands several direct hits. He is right, for example, that it will no longer do to scold questioners of globalization and liberal world order as “illiberals,” as if to indict them of heresy. The neoliberal faith has yet to reckon with the failures of its policies around the world. Now, as the nations of Eastern and Central Europe come to reject the postwar consensus as intolerably thin, it makes little sense to treat classical-liberal positions, from unrestrained markets to unrestrained immigration, as sacred cows. First Things does not reject the “liberal tradition” per se, Reno explains, but “liberal ideology.”
Reno’s point is important, perhaps the most important to conservative intellectuals struggling to define what they stand for in the age of Trump. Best of all, I think, is that Reno is winning the argument against Ahmari. Yet in the final analysis, Reno and Ahmari merely quibble on the margins of American conservatism. They both agree that there is a distinction between the liberal tradition, which is good and should inform conservatism as well as Christian politics, and liberal dogmatism, which is bad. If one inquires deeper, however, it becomes clear that Reno’s fundamental disagreement is with Vermeule, the writer he claims to defend; for Vermeule rejects that distinction, disowning liberalism altogether, with transformative implications for conservative and Christian action.
Reno’s essay allows for three competing interpretations: Reno has simply erred, overestimating the liberalism of his opponents and underestimating the radicalism of his allies; Reno actually supports Vermeule’s rejection of liberalism but is not yet ready to admit it and therefore chooses to clear the path for such an argument; or, while loudly defending Vermeule, Reno really intends to push back against him. I favor this third interpretation. In claiming Vermeule’s mantle while retreating from his most radical contention, Reno may be cleverly suppressing Vermeule’s politically irresponsible teachings and advancing his own Christian strategy, a conservative politics of solidarity to replace the post–World War II consensus.
“Liberalism, properly understood, is not a creed; it is a tradition, a set of institutions, and a habit of mind,” writes Reno. What was the title of Vermeule’s original article, which sparked the whole controversy? “The Liturgy of Liberalism.” Its basic thesis is that liberalism is a creed, replete with its own theology, eschatology, a central sacrament, and a whole anti-Christian liturgy. While pointing at Ahmari, then, Reno was slipping the knife into Vermeule.
Vermeule follows Ryszard Legutko in proposing that liberal democracy shares important similarities with communism. Our ancien régime, Vermeule argues, will become ever more anti-Christian and totalitarian as its principles unfold. Vermeule’s key allegation is that liberalism’s promise of liberty is, will be, and — most provocatively — always was a lie. Like all lies, then, Vermeule suggests, it must originate with the Devil, who urged on us the apple of liberalism with the promise that “Ye shall be as Gods.”
Adrian Vermeule may not have the power to effect the changes he desires, but ideas have consequences, and the conservative intellectual movement has never seemed riper for a takeover.
Without addressing Vermeule, Reno makes himself clear: “Legutko’s goal — my goal — is not to undermine ‘liberalism.’ It is to clear away some of the blind dogmatism that has built up in the West, especially since 1989.” Notice how Reno says that this is Legutko’s goal, and his goal, but not Vermeule’s. That seems deliberate. In the end, Reno may disclaim the “thin, rigid creed” of liberalism, but it is only to redeem liberalism’s “rich, flexible tradition.”
He sees Vermeule’s Christian strategy as useful to that end: “This transcendent loyalty [to Christ and not to any particular political philosophy or tradition] disenchants political ideologies, and freedom from the idolatry of politics is the soul of true liberalism,” Reno writes. That’s why he has been publishing Vermeule and other illiberals in the first place: Though they may aim higher than Reno does, managed carefully, they help him dislodge modern American conservatism from liberal dogma, making room for a politics of solidarity.
This is why Reno devotes all of his essay’s polemical energy to admonishing Ahmari; rightly or wrongly, for Reno, Ahmari represents the old conservative consensus that needs to be cast aside. That is his first priority. He makes this explicit when he explains that “the American liberal tradition is being threatened by the ideological liberalism that Ahmari defends, not by illiberalism.” Yet under the surface, Reno’s secondary effect is to draw readers back from Vermeule’s illiberalism. One need not throw the baby out with the bathwater to fiercely and rigorously oppose the neoliberal status quo, he contends, subsuming and covering up Vermeule’s radical position within the bear hug of his moderation.
Reno can fairly be grouped with the third way of Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, and others like him. Caldwell believes that globalization is a “con game,” is skeptical of immigration and the European project, and suspects that Vladimir Putin and the Eastern Europeans have been a little misunderstood. All of these positions entail revisions to post–Cold War orthodoxy, codifying some of the changes to which populist politicians have gestured. They reflect Reno’s growing understanding, traceable over several years, that liberalisms of the Right and of the Left have created an unsustainable “openness” that is destructive to the solidarities — of faith, family, community, and nation — that people desperately need. “The first political party to reclaim the word ‘we’ will dominate our future,” he writes in First Things’ November issue.
To this end, he deliberately undersells the illiberalism of Vermeule and Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, who, like him, direct considerable firepower at the old consensus. “Deneen diagnoses our flawed liberal habit of mind,” writes Reno in his latest effort. The editor of First Things is too perceptive not to understand that Deneen, a contributor to the magazine, diagnoses a great deal more than that, going so far as to reject the philosophy of the American founding itself over its liberalism.
“Neither Legutko nor Vermeule is equating Berkeley with the closed city of Gorky,” writes Reno. “They are comparing them — and finding some telling similarities.” So too did Leo Strauss, a helpful non-Catholic muse for this debate. In What Is Political Philosophy? Strauss writes that
democracy has not yet found a defense against the creeping conformism and the ever-increasing invasion of privacy which it fosters. Beings who look down on us from a star might find that the difference between democracy and communism is not quite as great as it appears to be when one considers exclusively the doubtless very important question of civil and political liberties, although only people of exceptional levity or irresponsibility say that the difference between communism and democracy is negligible in the last analysis.
This insight is not foreign to the conservative movement: Robert Nisbet and many others have offered some version of it. If Ahmari will not accede to it, he must provide some serious evidence for his disagreement.
For Reno’s purposes, however, the risk of “irresponsibility” is most relevant. We find clues to what the term might mean in the same essay, What Is Political Philosophy?, where Strauss again levels the charge but against Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, Strauss explains, “used much of his unsurpassable and inexhaustible power of passionate and fascinating speech for making his readers loathe, not only socialism and communism, but conservatism, nationalism and democracy as well.” He saw similar flaws in human regimes and so devastated them all. None could be deemed merely imperfect; all were pathetic before his pen. This was, in a word, immature. “After having taken upon himself this great political responsibility,” Strauss writes, Nietzsche “could not show his readers a way toward political responsibility.”
Clearing away “blind dogmatism,” in Reno’s vein, is one thing. Undermining liberalism, the American founding, or the liberal world order is another. Strauss concludes that Nietzsche left his readers “no choice except that between irresponsible indifference to politics and irresponsible political opinions. He thus prepared a regime which, as long as it lasted, made discredited democracy look like a golden age.”
Is Christianity, then, the answer to the question of political philosophy, that of what the ‘best regime’ is? Leo Strauss would reject the question.
I do not, of course, believe that Vermeule, even with tenure at Harvard, has the power to effect the changes he desires. But ideas have consequences, and the conservative intellectual movement has never seemed riper for a takeover. If Vermeule and his allies are going to assail the basis of much of the world’s prosperity and freedom (including religious freedom), they are obligated to articulate a coherent, responsible alternative, lest they also prepare a disastrous result.
In using a polemical attack on Ahmari to draw back Vermeule’s harsh critique, Reno has charted a politically responsible course: Directing both supporters and opponents of liberalism toward reform (moving the former from complacency and the latter from revolution), he helps to solidify and defend our regime, or at least preserve it until a better replacement has been found.
My sense is that Vermeule, though he takes a Jacobin’s joy in smashing liberalism, recognizes his duty. A recent essay of his brings out the political teaching of Carl Schmitt’s Roman Catholicism and Political Form, a text that Vermeule has previously recommended to the readers of First Things for its advice on constitutionalism. According to Vermeule, Schmitt suggests that the Church “will be the only genuinely political global entity left standing after the eventual self-immolation of the liberal-technical regime.” This, it seems, is Vermeule’s vision of the alternative to liberalism. Suffice it to say that putting all our eggs in the Schmitt basket does not exactly dispel Strauss’s warnings of “irresponsible political options.”
Whereas Nietzsche stripped away our allegiances and left us with nothing but naked will, Vermeule’s hope is to leave us with Christ. Is Christianity, then, the answer to the question of political philosophy, that of what the “best regime” is? Strauss would reject the question. “Regime becomes the guiding theme of political thought when the derivative or questionable character of laws has been realized,” he writes. That is, only if our original laws do not originate from God does law give way to regime; for laws must then come from human legislators, who have different characters in different social and political orders.
Practicing political theology rather than political philosophy, Vermeule can afford to attach his strategy to no particular regime. “There are a number of Biblical terms which can be properly translated by ‘law,’” explains Strauss. “There is no Biblical equivalent to ‘regime.’” Vermeule’s Christian politics instead relies on the divinity of its laws. Now like Strauss, I could draw on the laws of the Old Testament, but I would still be forced to acknowledge that, in practice, the Law has required non-divine, rabbinical exegesis. It has become substantially derivative. But Vermeule’s Messiah swept away even the original Law and advised his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Vermeule’s task, in my non-Christian assessment, is daunting. His mission is dangerous.
Reno, on the other hand, should be commended for his most cunning essay. Liberalism’s low but solid ground should neither be worshiped as an idol nor anathematized as heresy. Let us follow Reno’s lead and rediscover “the soul of true liberalism,” recalling Strauss’s insight that “above all, liberal democracy, in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the premodern thought of our western tradition.” It is not only faith, then, but also liberalism that should instruct us and help us to put first things first.
— Elliot Kaufman is a student of politics at Stanford University.