Postmodern Conservative

Mark Shiffman & Leo Strauss:the Limits of Limited Government

Mark Shiffman, one of our friendliest rivals or least rivalrous friends at Front Porch Republic has posted some important reflections on Christian personhood and limited government.  Here’s a major take-away: 

Over the course of the history of “Christendom” the consensus of limited government has been developed and maintained by the fact that the communion of personhood which constitutes the human transcendence of the state’s purview is sustained and publicly acknowledged in practices belonging to “civil society” (i.e. non-state practices and institutions).  That consensus is now disappearing, because the practices that cultivate and sustain our experiential awareness of our transcendent personhood are ceasing to shape our souls.

This is very well said in my view, and for that matter, just plain true.   The trick embedded in this formulation is a fragile dialectic between transcendence and immanence, religion and politics.  Liberty depends upon “personhood” understood as grounded in a personal God who absolutely transcends the political realm (and its “civil religion”); but at this same time this ground must be “public acknowledged” — it must be anchored in beliefs and practices that are shared by and authoritative for an actual community.  ”Civil Society” is the apparently simple name that we use for this fragile dialectic which holds together the beyond and the concretely authoritative.  

It is worth comparing the nice statement in Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s recent Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy of Strauss’s classical grounds for modern limited government:

1-The limitations of the rule of wisdom and thus the practical necessity of the rule of law.

2-The mixed regime as the best strategy for moderating the respective claims of the few and the many.

3- Scriptural religion as the best means of education the people in moral restraint.  The Zuckerts write:

In the first stages of the development of modern liberal democracies, Strauss observes, the solution to this problem was sought “in the religious education of the people,” that is, in an education, based on the Bible, that led people to regard themselves as responsible for both their actions and their thoughts to a God who would judge them (“LER,” 15). (According to Strauss, “the premodern thought of our western tradition” thus supplies much of the content, as well as an emphasis on the necessity, of the education of citizens.)

Shiffman’s and Strauss’s perspectives seem to me to be complementary, but not easy to hold together in practice.  Strauss’s emphasis on moral restraint suggests a civic religion that understates the importance of a transcendent reference — not only the divine guarantor of a moral sanction, that is, but an openness to a higher meaning that provides purpose beyond the material (and technological) frenzy of a democratic society.  As Shiffman writes;

The practices of communion of personhood are those of prayer, penitential examination of conscience and acknowledgment of sin, an imagination of praiseworthy life shaped by reflection on the Bible and the Saints, liturgical and sacramental participation in worship, and in general the receptivity (actual or intended) to grace.

Religious Freedom emerged in a moment of marvelous (not to say perfect) equilibrium between the power of a personal truth beyond politics and the social authority of a moral-political truth.  (This is very well seen, by the way, in Steven D. Smith’s very important and very sobering The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.)  Mark Shiffman is very right that the transcendent dimension of this freedom is imminently threatened by the eclipse of transcendent Christian personhood.  And Leo Strauss was right that this moral-political truth is imminently threatened by the onward march of democracy-technology.


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