Liberalism contra Secularism and Theocracy: A Reply to Mark Tooley

I recently read with interest Mark Tooley’s piece “Democracy vs Theocracy.” Tooley argues that for some “magisterial Protestants” and Catholic integralists, modernity is corrupt and the aberrant exception to the human story. A return to “traditional” societies, in which humanity was supposedly wiser and perhaps even less sinful, is urgently needed. In fact, Catholic integralists and historically-minded Protestants are not proposing that humans were less sinful in the past. It seems more accurate to say that integralists and some magisterial Protestants are arguing that humans have always been sinful, and that historically Christian societies typically accepted social and cultural guardrails to keep consequences of human sin from entirely disordering society.

If Integralists and their Protestant auxiliaries associate modernity with unregulated liberalism, they are mistaken. The belief that certain socio-cultural guardrails were a necessity for a flourishing human society was not limited to Reformation Era theocrats. It’s also the position of European liberals and also convinced disestablishmentarian Americans. Francois Guizot, Massimo d’Azeglio, William Gladstone, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all believed that religion—and more specifically certain civilizational commitments—upheld the liberal order. In order to teach faith in democracy to American children, Franklin Roosevelt declared, “we need the sustaining, buttressing aid of those great ethical religious teachings which are the heritage of our modern civilization.” The United States’ democracy was “not upon strength nor upon power,” but instead upon the spirit of God.” Roosevelt went so far as to claim that democracy and Christianity were symbiotic. The forces of Communism and Naziism “hate democracy and Christianity as two phases of the same civilization. They oppose democracy because it is Christian. They oppose Christianity because it preaches democracy.” Tooley is correct to question intransigence towards modernity, but modernity was and is hardly secular or explicitly libertarian.

Adopting the binary of so-called democracy and theocracy unhelpfully accepts the rhetorical division of American society into antagonistic tribes committed to en masse secularism, or to a theocratic Christian state. The people of the United States’ historic commitments lay with neither. A sturdy liberal republican social order, formed and sustained by historic Abrahamic and Christian intellectual and social commitments, made the United States a religiously tolerant republic when compared to other major Western states. The roots of tolerance and stability lay in the constitutional order and broadly Protestant cultural order in the Nineteenth Century. Against the secularism of the French Revolution, the United States’ Protestant socio-cultural order allowed for relative diversity. Tooley rightly praised John Wesley’s “quiet but steady evangelistic social renewal of 18th-century Britain” which contrasted “with the more abrupt change in France.” Tooley also stated accurately that “Wesley himself was Burkean, not Robespierrean.” Methodists therefore have “generally believed in reforming what already exists, not smashing it in favor of some new imagined perfect order.” Burkean liberal-conservatism was the strength of the American order, not Protestant theocracy or secularism. But American liberal-conservatism was also wedded to powerful Protestant churches that maintained the United States socio-intellectual practices and traditions until the middle of the Twentieth Century, when theological latitudinarianism cannibalized the Protestant intellectual and sociological core of the Mainline churches.

The debate Tooley enters, whether or not the principles would admit it or not, hinges on the fall of the Protestant mainline. The intellectual and religious collapse of the mainline rent the United States’ civic, moral, and social foundations during the middle of the Twentieth Century. Liberal Protestantism ceased to be Protestant and turned in to aggressive secular Americanism. Instead of religion shepherding liberalism, liberalism began shepherding religion. In 2017 Ross Douthat noted that a “large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant — former Methodists, ex-Lutherans, lapsed Presbyterians, the secularized kids of Congregationalists.” The American republic’s ancestral churches, the “theologically-liberal mainline denominations,” are “aging and emptying, with the oldest churchgoing population and one of the lowest retention rates of any Christian tradition in the United States.” Douthat proposes that “for the sake of their country, their culture and their very selves, liberal post-Protestants should find a mainline congregation and starting attending every week.” I don’t disagree. But the Protestant mainline needs to be truly Protestant before it will again be truly liberal. I share Tooley’s concerns over illiberalism, but until a substantive institution that actualizes the historic and sustainable benefits of liberalism can be found, this debate will continue.


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