Politics & Policy

Defending American Classical Liberalism

A response to ‘radical’ Catholics who hold it to be intrinsically hostile to Christianity

How should the religiously orthodox be disposed toward America? A number of leading contemporary Catholic intellectuals contend that we should be suspicious of, if not hostile to, the liberal political project, including the American experiment in ordered liberty. In Why Liberalism Failed, my friend and Notre Dame colleague Patrick Deneen issues a full-blown indictment, charging that liberalism’s deepest principles are hostile to traditional Christianity. Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule agrees. He concludes that “there is no reason to think that a stable, long-term rapprochement between Catholicism and the liberal state is realistically feasible” because “liberalism cannot ultimately tolerate the accommodation [with Catholicism] in principle while remaining true to itself.” Rod Dreher, who is Orthodox, recommends a “Benedict Option,” implicitly rejecting an “American Option.” Even Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput, who has been friendlier to the idea that Catholics can find a home in America, recognizes that the faithful are now “strangers in a strange land.”

Is the “strangeness” now engulfing traditional religious believers — the cultural persecution of them in elite circles, and the increasing legal pressure on them in everyday life — a product of our liberal political principles working themselves out, as these critics contend? Is a political order based on rights necessarily and essentially hostile to traditional religious belief and practice?

I think not. Faithful Americans can and should be patriotic citizens and champions of American principles. The principles that animated the American Founding — human equality, natural rights, government by consent, religious freedom — do not stand opposed to orthodox religious beliefs and practices. While one might agree with First Things editor Rusty Reno that “the American liberal tradition is in trouble,” our founding principles, rightly understood, remain the surest available means to help us restore a decent and just political order.

The ‘Radical’ Catholic Critique of Liberalism
According to what Deneen labels the “radical” Catholic critique, liberalism is a project of emancipation from traditional morality, natural necessity, and any limits on human willfulness. After more than 200 years, liberalism has finally played itself out. Americans have become licentious in sex, consumerist in the market, and gluttonous in everything else, because they have been emancipated from everything except their own desires. The decadent and deplorable aspects of contemporary American life, this argument goes, reflect not a break from our principles but the fulfillment of them. In Deneen’s catchy phrase, liberalism is failing because liberalism has succeeded.

The “radical” Catholic critique is centered on three basic claims.

First and most fundamentally is the assertion that America is animated by a political philosophy that denies the existence of transcendental truths and corresponding moral obligations. Liberalism, including American liberalism, the “radical” Catholics say, rejects natural law and the related notion of teleology. Liberalism vanquishes the idea of the human good, replacing it with “neutrality” toward competing conceptions of the good.

This purported neutrality gives rise to the critique’s second point: that liberalism conceives of the human person as an unbounded autonomous individual. Liberal “neutrality” turns out to be anything but neutral. Liberalism smuggles in its own particular understanding of the human person. Liberalism, according to Deneen, “is most fundamentally constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntaristic conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”

Liberalism can’t assert a notion of intrinsic moral obligation, according to David L. Schindler, because liberal ‘freedom is not originally-intrinsically conditioned by anything beyond the self; it consists in an act of choice that is, a priori, unbounded.’

In Deneen’s view, liberalism teaches that the essence of man lies in his capacity to make willful choices and, more radically, it declares a priori that there are no wrong or bad choices. That there are no wrong or bad choices is a rejection of classical natural right and Christian natural law, both of which hold that nature establishes moral standards for human behavior. Liberalism, the critics say, rejects morality grounded in nature and, in its place, promotes a radical, modern conception of human autonomy. Man does not take his bearings from what he is or from his place in a created ordered whole; liberal man becomes somebody by creating himself. In the more-refined words of Alasdair MacIntyre, “the individual moral agent, freed from hierarchy and teleology, conceives of himself and is conceived of by moral philosophers as sovereign in his moral authority.”

Liberalism can’t assert a notion of intrinsic moral obligation, according to David L. Schindler, because liberal “freedom is not originally-intrinsically conditioned by anything beyond the self; it consists in an act of choice that is, a priori, unbounded.” Liberalism, according to the “radical” Catholics, replaces duties with rights, reason with preferences, and nature with “lifestyle.” Liberalism’s denial of an objective moral order and its understanding of man as an autonomous, choosing, willful being leads to the third point of the “radical” Catholics’ criticism: America’s decline into decadence, relativism, and materialism is the inevitable product of liberalism’s principles.

Every political regime fosters a certain type of citizen; liberalism fosters liberal citizens. Liberal individuals become relativists, because they hold no objective standards of right and wrong. “Who is to say what is right or wrong?” and “You have your values, I have mine” are the quintessential ways Americans now think about moral questions. Liberals become technocratic materialists because they understand nature, including human nature, as something to be controlled and manipulated for our own purposes and desires. They become hedonistic and consumerist, because they see the purpose of life as the fulfillment — or, at least, the temporary satiation — of desire. Put these traits together, the critics say, and you can understand how American culture ushered in (and then was easily overtaken by) capitalism, nihilism, and the sexual revolution.

If this were not bad enough, liberalism, like every totalizing “ism,” is intolerant of those who reject its principles. At the core of the liberal project, the critics maintain, lies a deep and ineradicable animus toward everything liberals perceive to be illiberal. Therefore, it’s not enough for abortion rights or homosexual marriage to be secured; pro-lifers must advertise abortion services, and Christian bakers must bake cakes for same-sex weddings.

The critics conclude that our current situation reigns because of our liberal founding principles, not despite them. If you want to understand the true character of America, the “radical” Catholics contend, just look to the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in the abortion-rights case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Our Founding Principles, Rightly Understood
Casey remains a moral and legal abomination; it in no way follows from the principles of the American Founding. Nor do the other ills the “radical Catholics” lament. To understand this, one has to have a proper understanding of the true principles of American liberalism.

Let’s start with the contention that the political philosophy of the American Founding rejects the existence of objective truth. This simply is not true. The Founders’ principles are reflected in many documents, but nowhere more authoritatively than in the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration’s argument begins with a statement of truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Self-evident does not mean obvious or necessarily known by all. In the Declaration, “self-evident” is employed in the same manner Thomas Aquinas uses the term (per se notum) — a self-evident proposition is one in which the predicate is contained within the subject. In other words, the Declaration teaches that if we properly understand the nature of men, we will understand that they are created equal.

In what sense are men created equal? Thomas Jefferson offered a clear explanation at the very end of his life. In June 1826, as the nation was preparing to celebrate the Declaration’s 50th anniversary, he offered the following commentary on it:

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

Horses are not born with saddles on their back, but it is legitimate that men break horses, saddle them, and ride them for their own purposes. A good owner should treat his steed humanely, of course; but men may own horses and expropriate their labor because of the natural species inequality between man and animals. No similar natural inequality exists among human beings. Jefferson’s point is that no man may legitimately rule another man as a man may rule an animal, because all men, by nature, have an equal title to exercise dominion over their own lives and liberty. “All men are created equal” means that no man is, by nature, the rightful ruler or owner of any other man.

Both the Declaration and Jefferson in his commentary on it ground the truth of human equality in the created order of nature. The Founders do not say, “We are declaring the truth of human equality because that is what we have decided. We choose to make men equal.” Willful choice is not their starting point; nature and nature’s God are.

The Founders do not deny that human beings are relational creatures or that they flourish in political communities; they simply contend that legitimate political relations require consent.

Jefferson in his personal life and the Constitution in its original protections of slavery failed to respect the Declaration’s principle of equality. But whatever the Founders’ deficiencies in practice, the principles they articulated recognize a truth about man that is established by God and discerned by reflection on human nature and mankind’s place within God’s creation. In giving mankind our common human nature of reason and freedom, God made all men equal. The Declaration recognizes this truth and, in that sense, lies within the natural-law tradition. Indeed, the Declaration’s natural-law principles are the very basis of our just criticisms of the Founders’ practice of slavery.

To say that the Declaration of Independence is a natural-law document is not to say that it is a Thomistic document. The natural-law truth that the Declaration recognizes contains a claim about human freedom — that God created all individuals equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas might not concur, but in any case this is a debate among natural-law thinkers about the nature of human freedom.

The Founders’ embrace of liberty does not mean that they conceived of the human person as an autonomous individual or that they rejected the Aristotelian idea that man is a political animal. Far from it. Our natural independence, or self-dominion, is part of the Founders’ argument about natural authority and how human beings can rightly institute political authority among themselves. The Founders do not deny that human beings are relational creatures or that they flourish in political communities; they simply contend that legitimate political relations require consent. Because all men are created equal — which is to say that by nature no men have been “born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, . . . by the grace of God” —  consent is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of legitimate rule of man over man.

Consent follows from natural human equality. As stated in Article 1 of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776): “All men are born equally free and independent; therefore, all government of right originates from the people, is founded in consent, and instituted for the general good.” To reject the necessity of consent, which some “radical” Catholics seem to do, is to reject natural equality.

The Founders’ understanding of the natural right of liberty also does not mean that our choices are “unbounded” by substantive moral norms. The Founders distinguished liberty from license. They understood liberty to be the exercise of freedom consistent with the precepts of the natural law; license was understood to be the exercise of freedom contrary to the natural law’s precepts.

The Founders rejected Hobbes precisely on the grounds that he failed to recognize a morally authoritative natural law. This is an involved argument, of course, but we can start by simply stating what the young Alexander Hamilton said about Hobbes. In responding to a Loyalist critique that associated the revolutionaries’ arguments with Hobbes, Hamilton wrote that

good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory [from that of Hobbes]. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature.

On this morally obligatory law of nature, Hamilton continues, “depend the rights of mankind.” “Hence, in a state of nature,” he concludes, “no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty” (Hamilton’s emphasis).

Hamilton scorned Hobbes because, like the Founders more generally, he understood natural rights to be correlates to natural duties, and both to be constitutive of the natural law. As Hadley Arkes likes to say, the Founders did not believe in a “right to do a wrong,” meaning that our natural rights themselves lie within the natural law’s moral prescriptions. James Wilson, perhaps the Founding generation’s leading jurist, put the matter thus in his Lectures on Law:  “In a state of natural liberty [the state of nature], every one is allowed to act according to his own inclination, provided he transgress not those limits, which are assigned to him by the law of nature.” Elsewhere in his Lectures, Wilson says that “the laws of nature are the measure and the rule; they ascertain the limits and extent of natural liberty.”

Because natural rights are not opposed to the idea of binding moral obligations, the Founders did not conceive of the rights-bearing individual as an unencumbered, autonomous self. The Founders understood the human person to have rights on account of our God-given reason and freedom. These essential attributes of human nature establish both the grounds of our rights and the limits to them. The human person as a rights- and duty-bearing individual was understood to be a part of the Creator’s moral order and therefore morally subject to the natural law that governs that order.

Indeed, the nature of our duties to God is the underlying purpose for creating a liberal political order. “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth,” Madison writes in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” (quoting Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty), “‘that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’”

Because we are made to worship God freely — because we are called to love God and because love can only be given freely — we have a right to do so. Our rights follow from our duties and our duties imply rights. Our duty to worship the Creator according to conviction and conscience demands that religion be free from legal coercion. Liberalism, accordingly, recognizes that religious authority and the teaching of religious truth properly fall under the domain of churches alone. The liberal state is limited to safeguarding liberty because religious truth lies beyond its authority. In disparaging liberalism, the “radical” Catholics, perhaps unwittingly, raise doubts about the propriety of the separation of church and state and about the legitimacy of religious freedom.

One might accept this defense of our Founding principles yet still press an aspect of the “radical” Catholics’ third criticism — that American liberalism, whatever its original character, has produced a decadent and deplorable legal and moral culture. One might contend that even if the Founders accepted natural law, moral duties, and limits on rights, their account of freedom has proved to be too thin. It provides too much freedom for bourgeois, comfortable self-preservation, what moral theologian Servais Pinckaers calls “freedom for indifference,” and insufficient cultivation of “freedom for excellence.”

An honest assessment of America and our history must acknowledge that there is something to this criticism. The Founders held that the primary purpose of government is to secure natural rights. They believed that a just political order would preserve freedom for its citizens but that it would not command its citizens to use their freedom well.

If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles.

Critics home in on this point in their identification of America as part of the modern philosophical “project” of emancipation. But “project” assumes that some mastermind stands at the helm (Hobbes, according to the “radical” Catholics) or that, once set forth, history necessarily moves in a certain direction. The criticism fails to recognize the reality and implications of human freedom.

America is better characterized as an “experiment.” The Founders well understood that every generation would need to be taught to use its freedom well, which is why they sought to cultivate virtue through education and religion. (Thomas G. West in his excellent new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding, skillfully documents the Founders’ efforts.) They did not embrace Aristotle’s teachings that the purpose of politics is to make men virtuous and that law should be used to coercively habituate moral virtue, but they did understand that their constitutional republic would depend on virtue for its success. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” John Adams stated. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This is why America is an experiment: Can a free people remain sufficiently virtuous to maintain, and deserve to maintain, their freedom?

Restoring American Classical and Constitutional Liberalism
If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles. Our political and economic institutions have never been perfect, but (aside from slavery and its legacies, perhaps) they have never been so corrupt that they have made virtuous living impossible. Original sin may make corruption probable, and political liberty may make it possible; but the causes of America’s problems lie primarily in the poor choices we have made.

That means the solution to our problem lies, to a large extent, in our choices. To choose well, we must regain both political wisdom and the character that befits a constitutional people. Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential.

The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite where it has precipitously declined. The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated. As Tocqueville recognized, religion is the first of America’s political institutions. It teaches us to respect the equality of all individuals and provides the grounds for moderation and self-restraint, both individually and communally.

Morality, it must be recalled, is a precondition of political freedom. Take as a simple example freedom of association. The idea that, for the most part, individuals should be free to associate or not in matters of friendship or commerce makes intuitive sense to most Americans. Yet once people believe that individuals will use their freedom badly — that they will refuse to associate with others for irrational and bigoted reasons — the commitment to freedom of association begins to evaporate. Very few will remain partisans of liberty when it produces widespread injustice in practice. A free people must be a moral people to exercise and maintain their freedom.

Our political well-being, accordingly, has always depended on the health of the non-governmental institutions that cultivate virtue and morality, especially the family and churches. America’s cultural decline, unsurprisingly, has corresponded to the weakening of the family and of religious faith. The rise of fatherless homes and the decimation of mainline Protestantism (as Jody Bottum ably documents in An Anxious Age) have been terrible for America. Politics affects culture, of course, but culture shapes, limits, and sometimes directs politics. Cultural renewal, including a revival of traditional religion, is an essential facet of political renewal.

It is particularly important to remember that political liberty entails moderation and tolerance: moderation in what we demand from our political life, and tolerance of our fellow citizens who choose to live differently from us.

A free people must also be a constitutional people. They must govern through law and be governed by the rule of law.

Recovering our constitutional character also requires that that those who govern respect the Constitution and understand that it authorizes their authority. That the Constitution no longer governs us in practice or only partially governs us is not a new story. When Congress evades accountability by improperly delegating its legislative authority to administrative agencies, or when the president casts off his obligation to take care that duly enacted laws are enforced, it teaches the American people that there are no rules that govern us and that the only limitations on power are what you can’t get away with. This is doubly true of the Supreme Court, which seems to admit no restraint in transforming the Constitution to decree the justices’ own moral and social preferences. We cannot expect the people themselves to act responsibly or to remain moderate and self-restrained when those who govern fail to abide by the Constitution.

A revival of constitutionalism will also require a revival of limited government. The Constitution imposes limits on how power may be exercised; it also limits what government may legitimately do. The role of the state is not to make us pious or pure. Attempts to do so — especially in a country as divided and diverse as contemporary America — will lead to oppression. It is particularly important to remember that political liberty entails moderation and tolerance: moderation in what we demand from our political life, and tolerance of our fellow citizens who choose to live differently from us. Reclaiming the private sphere as private and therefore beyond state regulation would lower the stakes of our disagreements. Our politics would be much better if, on matters about which people can reasonably disagree, we left one another alone.

* * *

On matters that must be decided politically, our Founding principles should be our first guide. Nowhere is this truer than the issue of abortion. America’s foundational commitments to human equality and to the natural rights of life and liberty extend to all human beings, including the unborn.

The pro-life movement could and should adopt the reasoning that Abraham Lincoln applied to Stephen Douglas’s pro-choice position on slavery. The following is a modification of a passage from Lincoln’s Peoria Address (1854). I have substituted “liberty” for “self-government,” “fetus” for “negro,” and “person” for “man”:

The doctrine of liberty is right — absolutely and eternally right — but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a fetus is not or is a person. If the fetus is not a person, why in that case, he who is a person may, as a matter of liberty, do just as he pleases with him. But if the fetus is a person, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of liberty, to say that he too shall not [have the chance to] govern himself? . . . If the fetus is a person, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of [or aborting] another. [Lincoln’s emphases]

A tragic irony of “radical” Catholicism is that, among other things, it undermines the pro-life cause. They hold that Roe and Casey follow from a proper understanding of American liberalism. If they are honest, they must concede that former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and Princeton professor Peter Singer, who advocates infanticide, are more-faithful interpreters of our constitutional principles than Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas.

The “radical” Catholics’ misinterpretation of America is thus no mere academic matter. Their mistakes blind us to how our liberal principles offer a moral framework by which to support life. They are unable to appreciate the greatness of Lincoln or appropriate his moral wisdom and constitutional statesmanship. They preach local community and relationship to the past, but fail to understand their own community and eschew America’s own traditions and what is most noble about them.

In doing so, “radical” Catholicism alienates from the American experiment those who should be America’s most faithful friends, dispiriting young conservatives in particular. If liberalism was never attractive to begin with — if Casey is consistent with the Constitution — why fight for America? Why run for office or give one’s time or treasure to those who do? Why even vote and implicate oneself in an inevitably failing and corrupt political regime? The political alienation the “radical” Catholics foster cannot help but engender distain for engaged citizenship and responsible patriotism among the young, religiously orthodox citizens that America most needs right now.

Our current politics illustrates that decent, democratic self-government should not be taken for granted. Our experiment in liberal constitutionalism is just that — an experiment that can fail if not properly sustained. Insofar as America is a set of principles and ideals, she must be understood if she is to be fully appreciated. It is only by coming to understand the actual principles of our liberal regime that one can see how lovable she truly is and why she remains worthy of our devotion.

Vincent Phillip Muñoz is the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and director of Notre Dame’s program in Constitutional Studies.


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