The New Mainline and the Politics of Reality

Imagine a tapestry: a whole woven together from diverse threads, each depending on the others. But imagine that where its center once was, there is now only a large hole hacked out with a dull knife. Along the border of the emptiness, thread-edges are exposed and slowly unraveling. The remainder of the tapestry has become misshapen, its parts bearing stresses they were not meant to bear; the boundaries of the central nothingness strain toward the center, eager to fill a vacuum. Imagine further that this tapestry hangs on a wall which is regularly exposed to the sun. Certain dyes have naturally resisted the sun’s power to fade better than others, leaving the colors, which were once coordinated according to shade and vibrancy, uneven, almost splotchy, some outshining and others outshone.

Christian political discourse in America is like this tapestry–fading and stretched and strained, a gaping hole at its center. Mainline Protestantism died, but the emptiness where it once was remains, and American Christian political thought is deformed as a result.

One can recognize a lack by looking at the consequent disfigurement of what remains. Despite the disfigurement of American Christian political discourse, the lack left by the mainline has rarely been recognized as the source of the various malformations in the political thought of other Christian groups.[1] But lacks are often felt, and if the proliferation of new and renewed Christian political paradigms is any indication, this lack is felt keenly indeed. Like the rest of us, the various species of post-liberals—anabaptists, integralists, Christian nationalists, Christian socialists, magisterial Protestants, and theonomists—are all laboring, under conditions of decreasing political stability, to think well about ideal political orders and what Christians can do to realize them. For the politically inclined, the last decade has been by turns exciting and alarming. Various rival theories have multiplied, outdoing one another in prestige apparently to the extent that they outdo one other in implausibility. In some cases (integralism and theonomy come to mind), one suspects the absurdity makes up the better part of the appeal. Cyclical exposure to political shocks in recent years has deformed even the internal dynamics of these groups—as colors, they no longer look like they were supposed to. Despite these shortcomings, the new political theories at their best offer substantive criticisms of what they often refer to as the American “liberal” or “liberal democratic” order, mercilessly exposing its weaknesses and proposing powerful alternatives. But the natural defender of the liberal order is gone; without the mainline, Christian political discourse is deformed.

The terms “liberalism” and “liberal democracy” are contested, and their utility is not obvious given the varied and contradictory things denominated by them.[2] It’s useless to talk about “liberalism” in the abstract. We will come to understand it only as we see how the American Christian political landscape ended up the way it has, with the once-verdant mainline incinerated, sparks flying from the pens of great postliberal theorists like Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.

To make a long story short: it didn’t have to be this way. The intellectual life of mainline Protestantism in the mid-twentieth century was admirable on several counts. Its ecosystem of institutions of higher learning sustained a rigorous set of conversations within Protestant traditions, ecumenically, and across religious divides. These conversations in turn fostered confessional and ecclesial breadth. Barring the great exception of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy among the Reformed in the early 1900s, until the 1970s, substantial disagreements were often hashed out internally, within churches, rather than producing schism and institutional fracture. In the realm of political theology, the best mainline thinkers were unashamedly of the moment. They were American Protestants and therefore inheritors of both the great Christian intellectual tradition and the American liberal-democratic and constitutional traditions. But the best mainline thinkers also had the capacity to combine this sense of civic responsibility with a dynamic social imagination. Mainline theologians were not simple defenders of the status quo. As inheritors of their traditions, they nevertheless demonstrated the capacity to imagine improvements to our social, political, and economic orders. They were not revolutionaries, but critics.

Consider two theologians connected to the mainline: Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were relentlessly of their time—too much of their time, critics argue, particularly concerning Niebuhr’s views of race and King’s version of Liberal Protestant theology—and always interested in uniting theological reflection with the concrete and material. As Gary Dorrien has pointed out, although Niebuhr was consistently pro-labor and economically leftist, in the 1920s he was a “pacifist and Social Gospel idealist” before becoming in subsequent decades a socialist, a New Deal Democrat, a major figure in the “democratic party’s ‘Vital Center’ establishment,” and a champion of the Cold War.[3] But something of each man’s consistent sensibility is captured in Niebuhr’s 1944 classic, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” What should hold our attention is not the details of their arguments or even the plausibility of their particular claims, but the task each man set for himself.

Writing near the conclusion of World War II, Niebuhr was confident that some kind of liberal democracy would become the post-war norm in western Europe. But what would constitute a stable basis for such an order? Niebuhr argues in the opening pages that, just as in every “historic ideal” or institution, in democracy there are ephemera and “permanently valid elements.”[4] Democracy is bourgeois: it gave the rising middle classes of Europe in the early modern period “a sense of self-respect in overcoming the aristocratic pretension and condescension of the feudal overlords of medieval society.”[5] The assumptions and ideals of democracy grew up in that soil and no other. Of course, the nutrients of that soil were by the early twentieth century thoroughly spent, and democracy’s roots appeared to be drying out. Democracy’s death “might be viewed with equanimity, but for the fact that” democracy is ideally “a permanently valid form of social and political organization,” containing a valid emphasis on liberty even as it understated man’s social character.”[6]  Most crucially, under the influence of St. Augustine, Niebuhr concluded that modern liberal democratic theory is blind to the harsh truth of man’s nature: his great capacity for evil.

Recognizing these flaws, Niebuhr then says what, for our purposes, is crucial: since the bourgeois democratic ideal

“has been discredited by the events of contemporary history and since, in any event, bourgeois civilization is in process of disintegration, it becomes important to distinguish and save what is permanently valid from what is ephemeral in the democratic order. If democracy is to survive it must find a more adequate basis than the philosophy which has informed the building of the bourgeois world.”[7]

Niebuhr thought this new basis must be established by rejecting all false optimism about human nature and, drawing on his Augustinian inheritance, he wanted nothing else than to provide a new, truer basis for liberal democracy. Notice how Niebuhr proceeds: he numbers himself as an inheritor of a distinct tradition, he identifies its goods, pinpoints what he believes to be fatal flaws in its theoretical underpinnings, and then seeks to preserve the goods and rectify the ills by providing a foundation for its continued existence. He writes as an American, as a Christian, and as a critic, but not as a revolutionary.

King similarly exemplified this combination of civic responsibility and dynamic social imagination. Admittedly, King stands in a complicated relationship to the mainline, owing to its checkered history with respect to race, but he certainly qualifies as mainline-adjacent, and the rhetorical posture he adopted in order to persuade his fellows embodied the ethos of the mainline. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, King defends the tactic of civil disobedience against seven mainline clergy (and one Rabbi) who opposed the tactics employed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King argues as an American and a Christian, framing the Civil Rights movement as the product of the desire to receive long-denied “constitutional and God-given rights.” King’s recognition of his political, social, and temporal location are further evidenced as he turns to answer what he calls the “legitimate concern” of those who dislike even peaceful lawbreaking. Here, King appeals to St. Augustine, who famously argued in On Free Will that “an unjust law is no law at all.” King then addresses how one may distinguish between just and unjust laws, which is to say between laws and those things which cannot be rightly called laws. He refers to St. Thomas Aquinas, who held that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” As John Bowlin has indicated in a lecture on the future of natural law, King’s natural law is metaphysically thin, designed to appeal to the greatest number of his fellow-citizens as possible. He does not take sides in intra-Christian disputes about natural law’s precise character or grounding, recognizing that the common inheritance of Christians in America suited his purposes more effectively than Protestant or Baptist or Liberal distinctives. His “democratic commitments” required nothing else.

Niebuhr and King’s shared ethos toward the extant liberal order, an ethos which characterized mainline contributions to American political discourse until the 1970s, has remained popular into the present day. Although his academic stature has diminished in recent decades, Niebuhr retains his popularity among seminarians and U.S. presidents alike, and King’s letter is justly recognized as a masterpiece of American Christian rhetoric. And yet, despite its appeal, actual practice of Niebuhr’s approach has been in large measure abandoned, and it is worth asking why. On the left of the mainline, one can point to the tremendous influence of liberation theology, which encourages the posture of the Old Testament Prophet and rejects the obligations of Priest and King. But more importantly for our purposes, I suspect much of the problem also lies with the increasing popularity of post-liberal political thought in American seminaries and divinity schools.[8] The figures responsible for the replacement of this mainline ethos are numerous, and any full accounting would need to include luminaries like John Milbank, but here we will restrict ourselves to two thinkers worth investigating to get a flavor of Christian post-liberal discourse: Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.

As Jeffrey Stout has indicated in the excellent Democracy and Tradition, MacIntyre re-appropriated Aristotelian virtue ethics and Thomism after many twists and turns. But his trajectory was set by the time of the publication of his classic, After Virtue, and its sequel, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In the latter book, McIntyre discusses four traditions: Aristotelianism, Augustinianism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and liberalism.[9] MacIntyre identifies liberalism with an “antitraditionalist quest, one that seeks to rise above all tradition to the vantage point of universal reason and that is expressed in both liberal thought and liberal practice.”[10] To understand the implications of this claim within the context of MacIntyre’s thought, it is necessary to look directly at his understanding of virtue. 

In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that virtues are practiced, and that practices provide “the arena in which the virtues are exhibited and in terms of which they are to receive their primary, if incomplete, definition.”[11] “Practice”, for MacIntyre, is a technical term–he does not just mean “rehearsed” or “carried out.” Rather, he defines a practice as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends in goods involved, are systematically extended.”[12] This is a dense definition, but MacIntyre’s subsequent distinction between skills and practices clarifies a great deal. According to MacIntyre, bricklaying is a skill, while architecture is a practice. Likewise, archival research is a skill; the historian’s work is a practice. Practices involve “standards of excellence and of obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods.”[13] In other words, practices are structured societal activities which, in the course of attaining external goods, also attain internal goods. This distinction between external goods and internal ones is important: the external good is characterized by the fact that it is “always some individual’s property and possession,” and this contrasts with internal goods, which result from the desire to succeed, but whose achievement “is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice.”[14] The internal goods secured by practitioners benefit the entire community of practice: although an innovative building designed by an architect belongs to one person or one corporation (external good), the innovations benefit all architects. Furthermore, in the course of practicing with excellence, one will become excellent in particular ways:historians will become excellent in those ways that the practice of history encourages. Finally, every practice will inculcate certain common excellencies: “we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage and honesty.”[15]And these can only be achieved by submission of oneself to a way of life inculcated by the practice.

After making this distinction, MacIntyre gives his first, preliminary definition of virtue, which is nevertheless sufficient for our purposes: “a virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[16] The goods internal to practices, then, are the fruit of virtue, and virtue simply is a quality the possession of which enables us to achieve the goods internal to practices. But there is one further, crucial dimension of his account: practices depend upon institutions. Institutions, as MacIntyre defines them, are themselves concerned with “external goods,” like acquiring money or building buildings. But institutions sustain practices, such that “institutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order in which the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution.[17] To return once more to the example of the historian: he uses the skill of archival research to practice history, resulting in the external good of the increase of historical knowledge and the internal goods of developing certain excellences or capacities; but his practice is only possible because it is facilitated by the institution of the university, which provides funding, facilities, books, training in the practice of history, and so forth. Practices, and the virtues which attend them, depend upon institutions as the sites where said practices can be acquired in a society; the goals of institutions, in turn, are realized only by the practitioners these institutions sustain.

As should be apparent by now, for MacIntyre, the virtues are only attainable within societal traditions, which is to say, within institutions which provide the necessary means for individuals to attain competency in practices. One is born into a tradition, a polity, a family, a tribe, a set of relations: “These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point.”[18] MacIntyre supposes that “modern individualism” will struggle with this fact, but a fact it remains. The full significance of MacIntyre’s identification of liberalism with anti-traditionalism can now be appreciated: liberalism is nothing less than the attempt to free individuals from the traditions, and therefore from the institutions, that make social practices and the virtues which constitute their internal goods possible.

All well and good—but how is it that the compelling, if often dense, analyses of a Thomist virtue ethicist could have the sort of impact on Christian discourse I’m suggesting? It is here that Hauerwas, an ethicist at Duke Divinity School, one of the elite divinity schools in the country and a flagship Methodist institution, becomes important. Hauerwas trained at Yale Divinity School, overlapping with Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard, and drinking from the spring of post-liberal narrative theology.[19] By the time of his relatively mature writings in the 1980s, Hauerwas had begun synthesizing MacIntyre’s virtue ethics with the ecclesial and theological commitments of John Howard Yoder, the prominent pacifist and Mennonite theologian. Agreeing with MacIntyre that “the citizens of a liberal democracy are essentially rootless individuals, and not members of a community united by their commitment to the same ‘canonical stories’”, Hauerwas likewise agreed that they were unable to cultivate the virtues or make sense of the meaning of their lives.[20] Like Yoder, Hauerwas was clear that the church existed not to “transform the sociopolitical order through direct engagement with it” but to “establish its own community of discipleship.”[21] The Church is a unique community and an icon; it seeks not to transform the world but to be transformed, and in this transformation, to witness to the world of the work of Jesus Christ. As Hauerwas put it in his famous dictum: let the church be the church.

Although Hauerwas has always denied the charges that he is an ecclesial “sectarian,” and although he is certainly no anti-institutionalist, it is nevertheless the case, as the Princeton political theorist Jeffrey Stout recognizes, that combining the anti-liberalism of MacIntyre with the church-world distinction of Yoder leads to a rigid church-world dualism: “Christians must withdraw their support” from any social or political establishment that “resorts to violence in order to maintain internal order and external security.”[22] In his more recent work, Hauerwas has backed away from making such claims as stringently as he once did, foregrounding that the Church must engage the world “contextually.” And it is true that Hauerwas’ ethical commitments about race, war and poverty have clear precedent in the tradition of mainline activism in the 60s and 70s. But in his adoption of ecclesiocentric anabaptism and his consequent refusal to commit to responsibility for America as it is, he represents a notable departure. By impact, Hauerwas was his generation’s towering giant among mainline ethicists; by institutional location, Hauerwas inherited the tradition of mainline civic responsibility. He disclaimed it.

One cannot help but suspect that the more recent interest MacIntyre and Hauerwas display in distancing themselves from post-liberalism is not unrelated to the fact that post-liberalism has in the intervening years become increasingly adopted by figures on the “new right.” Indeed, in both its left- and right-coded variants, popular post-liberalism has tended to adopt MacIntyre and Hauerwas’ framing of the true nature of “liberalism.” Thus, in his recent book, The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe argues that “the retreat to universality is an expression not of Christianity but of normalized modern liberalism, operating as a background assumption for Christian ethics, exegesis, and theology. It ought to be deconstructed. Christians in the West are enmeshed in totalizing liberal regimes.”[23] Here, liberalism takes up a universal position, undermining the conditions of plausibility that once made Christian political action possible. Likewise, from a very different post-liberal perspective, Adrian Vermeule has written that liberalism “constantly, and at an ever-increasing tempo, disrupts deeply-cherished traditions among its subject populations, stirring unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash.” This pitting of the individual against tradition and family is precisely the framing of liberalism found in thinkers like MacIntyre and Hauerwas. Liberalism corrodes traditions; it is the universal anti-tradition which dissolves all of the particular traditions beneath it. The solution held out by post-liberalisms of the left and right alike is the abandonment of liberalism and the unapologetic adoption of different traditions (which?) as one’s own. 

But is this the only way of viewing liberalism? And, if not, why has this way in particular been permitted to frame, unquestioned, much recent American Christian political debate among Protestants and Catholics alike? Certainly, strong critiques of the individualist element in liberal thought have been made for decades, as the discussion of Niebuhr above demonstrated. But there are other ways of understanding liberalism, ways that account and correct for the overemphasis on the individual. Jeffrey Stout, although uncomfortable being classed among the “liberals,” is nevertheless an ardent defender of the liberal democratic order. Like Niebuhr, Stout contends that liberalism is a particular tradition, not a universalist anti-tradition, and he provides two possible alternatives to MacIntyre’s account of liberalism. First, he suggests that liberalism could be described as the tailoring of “the political institutions and moral discourse of modern societies to the facts of pluralism.”[24]In this case, liberalism is a fitting mode of social and political arrangement given the intractable pluralism of contemporary Western society.

Alternatively, one might begin by rejecting the notion of a unitary “liberal project” in the first place. Stout suggests we should speak instead of “liberal society,” which is the “configuration of social practices and institutions” with which the U.S. and certain other nations currently live.[25] This configuration of practices and institutions is too complicated to be counted as the expression of a single project. Whichever definition one chooses—Stout prefers the second—a key constituting element of liberal democratic thought is “the idea of a body of citizens who reason with one another about the ethical issues that divide them, especially when deliberating on the justice or decency of political arrangements. It follows that one thing a democratic people had better have in common is a form of ethical discourse, a way of exchanging reasons about ethical and political topics.”[26] Central to democratic liberalism or liberal democracy is a way, a particular form of engagement with one’s fellow citizens about social and political goods under conditions of pluralism.

It is therefore unsurprising that, in both its left and right forms, whether ironically or seriously, post-liberalism has been unable to avoid racism and features prominent actors who stop just short of open calls for revolutionary violence (cf. also Wolfe, The Case For Christian Nationalism, the sections on Christians as a minority and Romans 13 in the chapter “The Right to Revolution”). If, as Stout suggests, democratic liberal thought is constituted—necessarily but not sufficiently—by particular forms of discourse designed to enable members of a pluralist society to achieve particular common goods, to hold one another accountable, and secure domestic tranquility, it should not be shocking that post-liberalism, in abandoning this way, substitutes for it alternative modes of discourse.

In earlier and academic articulations of post-liberalism, the way of democratic liberalism was taken for granted even by those who were theorizing about its disestablishment. They assumed this way could be preserved without liberalism, but they did not provide an adequate theoretical account of how this could be. These early theorists apparently did not foresee that some, in their name, would inevitably champion alternative post-liberalisms in post-liberal ways. Like Aristotelian philosophy’s role as the lingua franca utilized by elite Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the medieval Islamic-ruled world, the discursive norms of liberalism facilitate mutual public comprehensibility between members of different traditions for the sake of social harmony, and we abandon such a common way at our peril.

There is a second, and greater, error of the post-liberals: a failure of piety. Even in the American tradition, the virtue of piety has been articulated in many ways, and I have given an Augustinian articulation of liberal American piety elsewhere. But Stout traces another tradition, from Emerson through Whitman to Dewey. This Emersonian tradition defines piety as “virtuous acknowledgement of dependence on the sources of one’s existence and progress through life.”[27] These sources of one’s existence and progress through life include the social and political order into which we are born. Piety for us entails a virtuous appropriation of liberal democracy. Against traditionalists who assume that democracy is intrinsically antithetical to piety, Stout takes pains to emphasize that the only piety worthy of the name is just. It neither ignores the faults of our forebears, nor does it wish them away. Niebuhr was often critical of the excesses and false bases of liberal democracy. Emerson exemplifies critical piety with respect to democracy in his essay “Politics”:

“Democracy is better for us, because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it. Born democrats, we are nowise qualified to judge of monarchy, which, to our fathers living in the monarchical idea, was also relatively right. But our institutions, though in coincidence with the spirit of the age, have not any exemption from the practical defects which have discredited other forms.”

Democracy is recognized as a relative good, but one that is nevertheless good for us.

The crucial task for today’s Christians interested in a realistic politics or a politics of reality, then, is not to retreat to nostalgic traditionalist particularism, nor is it to fantasize about alternative utopian modes of social organization facilitated by revolutionary disruption, nor is it to incessantly bemoan the evils of liberalism without pious recognition of the goods it has secured us. It is rather to take up American liberal democracy as a distinct tradition, as our tradition, and to work to rectify its missteps by providing it with new and better foundations. The children must not abandon their father to his nakedness, but cover it.

This is precisely what mainline Protestantism did at its best. But it is hard to imagine any particular group of Christians filling the void left by the mainline, and thereby becoming its true successor in American Christian political discourse. Conservative Protestants are numerically insignificant and fractured, pushing the requisite ecclesial and confessional breadth out of reach. Evangelicals tend toward populism, lacking as a result the robust institutions necessary to develop an intellectual elite. Meanwhile, the old mainline’s dramatic numerical decline leaves it without a sufficiently large proportion of Christians in its pews.

I suspect, therefore, that if a new mainline is to arise, it will be Catholic. Perhaps Catholicism already is our mainline. In addition to its unmistakable political dominance, nearly every crucial feature I identified as constituting the old mainline’s value for Christian discourse (a strong intellectual ecosystem, confessional breadth, societal reach, and socially dynamic vision) is possessed by Catholics in spades. Unfortunately, if understandably, given Catholicism’s history as a persecuted church in America, many key Catholic theorists and popularizers today seem to lack the sense that they are inheritors of America’s political traditions. Some have taken up instead Catholicism’s venerable tradition of anti-liberal thought, which was given its most forceful articulation in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.

But American Catholics should consider reinvigorating the American Catholic center ascendant in the decades following the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae, when Catholics adopted much of the ethos of the mainline. Catholic-leaning flagship magazines, such as First Things, were markedly pro-liberal until recently (admittedly, not always in the ways one would have hoped). First Things’  identity as a formally ecumenical and interreligious magazine devoted to American public life is in large measure an inheritance of its mainline heritage by way of its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus. Perhaps the tradition of civic Augustinianism, articulated in the twenty-first century by figures like Eric Gregory, would provide a worthwhile point of departure for Catholics. After all, Augustine is a saint Protestants and Catholics have in common. But if elite Catholics cannot figure out how to adopt America’s political heritage as their own, even as they seek to transform it, they will not be able to fulfill the role of the mainline.

In any case, even if this task is rejected, whatever the aims of the post-liberals, the attempt to move beyond liberalism will likely fail. As Gregory wrote in what is perhaps the greatest work of twenty-first century Augustinian liberal theory, Politics and the Order of Love, “social forms, like religions, are historically contingent, morally ambivalent, and socially resilient. Just as no one today can really be called a ‘medieval knight’ or even a ‘Marxist,’ it is also hard to imagine a political way of life that does not at the very least perpetuate aspects of a liberal society.”[28] Whether we like it or not, certain features of liberalism are here to stay. In response to our clarity about liberalism’s deficiencies, we, like Niebuhr, are faced with a choice: abandon a liberal way of life or provide it with foundations adequate to our time, place, collective temperament, and most importantly, to the truth. The pious disposition is one that justly—which is to say, critically—expresses gratitude for the good secured by our forebears, and seeks to cover their nakedness, to rectify their deficiencies without dispensing with their virtues. As Gregory writes, building on the work of the great Christian political theologian Oliver O’Donovan, on one understanding, liberalism can be seen as the triumph of Christian social and political theory, with its “emphasis on freedom of conscience and speech, local communities, and natural equality” in addition to “the very notion of a responsible and legitimate state humbled by the merciful rule of law guided by constitutional principles.”[29]

It is with great irony, then, that the post-liberals have forgotten that which has been made central to post-liberal theorizing: our particularity and contingency, our being born into definite times and places, families and traditions. Liberal democracy wove our tapestry; it made us what we are. Consequently, we are not constituted for other social or political forms. Our time calls for nothing less than a radical recommitment to the tradition of American civic responsibility and social dynamism on issues like labor and race, all combined with Christian theological commitments—what the mainline successfully offered in the twentieth century. We must exemplify the mainline’s old virtues and recover its devotion to a politics of reality. We must recall what we have forgotten: we were begotten, and we cannot remake ourselves.

Onsi Aaron Kamel is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. His primary research interests lie in metaphysics and epistemology, the history of philosophy, historical theology, and intellectual history. He is currently researching medieval Christian Arabic philosophy and theology and how this inheritance was transferred to the Latin West. His first journal article, “The Beloved Icon: An Augustinian Solution to the Problem of Sex,” was published in The Scottish Journal of Theology, and his popular writing on various themes has been published in outlets including First Things, Ad Fontes, Mere Orthodoxy, and elsewhere.

  1. By mainline, I refer to the major, non-evangelical denominations (e.g. the PCUSA, ELCA, etc) and their attendant institutions which, in the mid-twentieth century, accounted for the denominational identity of the majority of Protestants and nearly one-third of all Americans.

  2. To begin with, “liberalism” and “democracy” are not synonyms, the former indicating at minimum some system of individual rights with regard to the State and the latter indicating at minimum deliberative, often representative governance.

  3. Gary Dorrien, “Introduction” in Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), ix.

  4. Niebuhr, Children of Light, 7.

  5. Niebuhr, Children of Light, 2.

  6. Niebuhr, Children of Light, 18.

  7. Niebuhr, Children of Light, 19.

  8. I also suspect that the Neoconservative turn of some prominent mainline figures, like Richard John Neuhaus, also played a role.

  9. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, Revised edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 125.

  10. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 129.

  11. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Second Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 187.

  12. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 187.

  13. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 190.

  14. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 190-191.

  15. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 191.

  16. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 191.

  17. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 194.

  18. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 220.

  19. Although post-liberal narrative theology cannot be equated with post-liberal political theology, they are species of a common genus.

  20. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 145.

  21. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 143.

  22. Hauerwas, cited in Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 148.

  23. Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon Press, 2022), Ch. 8.

  24. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 129.

  25. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 130.

  26. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 6.

  27. Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 30.

  28. Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 370. Emphasis mine.

  29. Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, 370.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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