Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

After Liberalism, the Deluge?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 09, 2012

With the great social experiment of the Enlightenment crumbling all around us, we may well wonder what guiding principles will inform the culture of the future. In other words, what comes after liberalism?

The subject is worth serious thought, and not long ago First Things sponsored a symposium entitled “After Liberalism”. Over the past few issues of the magazine, ending with August/September 2012, the editors have been printing the principal papers delivered at the symposium, along with the shorter responses by other scholars. The exchange which struck me as most interesting was the last one to be published, initiated by Patrick J. Deneen of Notre Dame in a paper entitled “Unsustainable Liberalism”, and including responses by Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption College (“The Art of Liberty”) and Paul J. Griffiths of Duke University’s Divinity School (“Public Life without Political Theory”).

Liberalism Explained

The use of the term “liberalism” here does not refer to, say, the liberalism of the Democratic Party vs. the conservatism of the Republican Party. It refers to the tradition of philosophical, social and political liberalism which emerged during the Enlightenment and has largely shaped the Western world order, including the modern State, since that time. This liberalism is characterized by a confidence in reason, expertise, socio-political manipulation, and consequent progress to vastly improve human life. This liberalism also neglects tradition and either ignores, denies or transforms religion so as to minimize typical religious insights of humility and dependence on God.

Deneen points out, as other commentators have before him, that this liberalism encompasses much or most of what we commonly call political conservatism and liberalism today. For example, anyone who really believes it is possible to put together an ideal constitution as the foundation of a new socio-political experiment has already distanced himself at least somewhat from tradition and religion through his very confidence in a solution to the problem of polity cut instantly out of whole cloth. We can see, at least in retrospect, how taken the American founders were with this possibility, which has led to a long tradition of what we now call “American exceptionalism”. We are the secular city on the hill, and we do not hide our lamp! The same confidence in human ingenuity, in general defiance of both God and tradition, has increasingly shaped Europe at least since 1789.

All of this was accompanied by an alteration in religious belief from specific creeds and traditions to a more rationalized Deism, at first tied to a broad understanding of the natural law, which was later largely abandoned as insufficiently open to the full possibilities of human tinkering, and the inevitability of progress as a result of this tinkering. To a very large extent, both contemporary conservatives and liberals tend to take this vision for granted, but they do also tend to differ on what the limits and goals of this tinkering should be, at least politically.

The Enlightenment took the Christian concept of the equality of all persons before God and attempted to give it universal social application, such that this equality would actually be realized and recognized universally in this life. This began as a desire to eliminate what were regarded as artificial restraints—those features of law which actually prevented various classes of people from being treated fairly or realizing their potential. Conservatives today remain largely in favor of political intervention to prevent legal manifestations of inequality and legal restrictions on opportunity in general. But there are other factors which make the realization of equality problematic, such as wealth, upbringing, intelligence, and so on. Modern liberals have generally emphasized the need to go beyond equality of legal opportunity to equality of condition, causing the State to tinker ever more aggressively in order to level the playing field. But in the larger sense, both modern conservatives and modern liberals tend to be rooted in that liberalism which has produced the non-traditional and non-religious social orders which are now coming apart at the seams.

Unsustainable Liberalism

Patrick Deneen points out (again, as some other thinkers have already done) that this liberalism is unsustainable precisely because it depends for its existence on the capital it inherited from earlier systems of thought and culture, particularly long-held traditions and the morals and attitudes of religion (in particular, Christianity). Deneen suggests persuasively that the positive insights of liberalism can lead to social gains only insofar as the traditions, virtues and even faith of the people are still intact, and that by its very nature liberalism tends to tear down these traditions, virtues and faith in favor of human experimentation in the service of secular utopia.

Ultimately the nature and direction of this tinkering is invested in the liberal agent of utopia, the State; and the State progressively finds itself with fewer sound citizens and ever more to accomplish, as the formative sources of human strength and self-knowledge are reduced and eliminated. As Deneen put it in one place, “voluntarist logic ultimately affects all relationships,” and so both the family and the larger social order implode. Hence liberalism is unsustainable. Tradition (which develops slowly under the profound influence of what is constant, such as the natural law) and Christianity alike have been in large part exhausted in the West. The prime formative influences on persons, families and communities are gone; the capital has been used up; and so we are now witnessing the collapse of the liberal order, which has in itself no coherent source of value.

For myself, I accept this thesis as obvious. It is not new, but Deneen has expressed it well and with many fine insights. As his respondents suggest, however, Deneen does not have smooth sailing to all of his recommendations and conclusions. For example, Deneen believes the way out is to retain the essential features of our political and economic institutions but understand them differently, and in particular to see liberty as meaning “self-governance and self-limitation” rather than limitless autonomy. There is a significant insight here, but as valuable as a paradigm shift would be in our understanding of liberty, one may well doubt that it would be sufficient to salvage the project.

Moreover, the first respondent, Daniel Mahoney, raises the most obvious objection: Just as no social order is made up only of pure theoreticians, no social order is monolithic, and the people who make up the social order are not all motivated by the same values. For example, there have always been strong religious elements in liberal societies, including a strong Christian influence. There are at least a few deeply religious liberals (in the contemporary political sense), and conservatism is a somewhat uneasy alliance between those formed by secular ideas and those who believe religion vitally important to social and political life. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that the liberal order (if, indeed, one can speak of a liberal order) or its particular manifestation in the modern State will be gradually tempered or transformed without our having to ask the question of what happens “after liberalism”. This criticism seems fair, but it is still hard to argue with the overall trajectory which Deneen has traced, or with the presence of potent seeds of destruction in the main lines of liberal thought.

Another Way

A further criticism is offered by Paul Griffiths, who argues that in Patrick Deneen’s essay there is too much emphasis on getting political theory straightened out as a solution to our modern malaise. Griffiths regards confidence in the capacity of political theory to address or even understand political problems as the besetting sin of political theorists. He would prefer a non-theoretical approach to public policy. He believes we must simply watch out for the broadly statistical indicators that the citizenry is failing to flourish in this or that way, and then, based on a data-intense analysis, we must determine whether this failure to flourish merits a political response and, if so, what political response: “Political discourse ought not stray far from, and certainly should never forget, the data.”

Now both realism and prudence are vital to effective politics. But even though Griffiths uses incarceration rates and abortion in the United States as examples in which both absolute and comparative data demonstrate failures to flourish which ought to be addressed politically (and I happen to agree with him on both issues), he seems to be almost blissfully unaware of the way in which values determine the significance of data. The recognition of data is merely the tip of the iceberg. How to assess the significance of the data—as well as the causes and the solutions to the problem it may represent—cannot be determined by the data itself.

I suspect that Griffiths does not mean to devalue values; he simply wishes to devalue political theory. Yet how we conceive of liberty, how we look at government and how we establish appropriate political institutions are all critical determinants of human flourishing. Under what circumstances can political solutions be employed without doing more harm than good? What is the balance between freedom and coercion? By what process should a course of action be determined and implemented? Without suggesting for a moment that one can create an ideal order simply by getting one’s political theory right, political theory has much to say about critical factors which affect the common good, beginning with theory about the nature and ends of government itself.

Ultimately what all the authors tend to skirt in various ways is the fundamental question of human culture. They can probably all successfully argue that they address cultural issues more fully elsewhere, and even that their particular insights on the “after liberalism” question would promote a greater flourishing of human culture (as, indeed, would almost anything that tends to move away from Statism in favor of greater local control, reverence for God, contentment with natural human limitations, and personal responsibility). But culture is still the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

Cultural Axioms

It is a given from the very nature of the human person as a social being that culture is formed primarily through cooperation to maximize human goods. Thus there are two fundamental requirements for a rich human culture: (1) Proper recognition and understanding of human goods; (2) Cooperation so that various strengths and contributions can be combined to achieve more than what any one person can achieve on his own.

But liberalism, in the broad historical sense, undermines both of these fundamental requirements. On the one hand, it fails to recognize many human goods and distorts others. This is the direct result of its emphasis on the eradication of human differences, its refusal to accept the limitations of human nature, its insistence that all desires are equally good and must in justice be satisfied, its denigration of tradition in favor of an overconfident rationalism, and its consequent dilution or elimination of religion. On the other hand, liberalism eliminates cooperation by insisting that its own “rational” solutions must become universal norms through the power of the State, and by regulating voluntary cooperative tasks out of existence.

Even if we could eliminate the modern State, of course, human culture would not automatically flourish. When a culture is bankrupt, it takes a long time to replenish itself. Typically every positive expression of human culture is both represented and fostered by a whole series of voluntary associations and intermediary institutions—churches above all, but also trade associations, community organizations of every kind, and even civic associations and governmental bodies local enough for regular human participation to be normal and natural. Above all, great cultures require a religious vision, a vision which captures and reinforces at least to a large degree an understanding of God, the nature and ends of man, and the principles of the natural law which we sometimes find it difficult to discern under the pressure of our passions, prejudices and blind-spots. As recent popes have emphasized, religion is a foundation of human culture, and so without religious liberty the cultural enterprise is stunted; moreover, authentic religion is the foundation of a truly strong, vibrant and rich human culture.

Whatever militates against authentic religion cuts us off from the most secure knowledge of our nature and ends, and from the greatest impetus to our self-discipline and common achievement. Liberalism by its nature tends to cut us off in this way, which means it must substitute some faulty human vision for what God Himself has revealed through either the natural law or Revelation. But in any case, culture is the elephant in the room when we ask the question of what will come “after liberalism”. For what will come must grow out of what is now a debased culture, in which those institutions, traditions and values which built up what was once an immense capital are now weakened or even altogether forgotten.


The long-term solution, then, is to do everything possible to strengthen religion and human cooperation in every community, and to dismantle as much as possible all of those intrusions by the modern liberal State which restrict or enervate religion and undermine legitimate human cooperation through public policy, comprehensive regulation and force. What we get “after liberalism” will be determined by what culture we can salvage and strengthen in the time between now and when liberalism ceases to dominate either by abject failure or essential transformation. This is exactly, for example, why Karol Wojtyla, before he became Pope John Paul II, devoted himself to the building of human culture even when he was otherwise powerless to oppose the Communist State in Poland. It is also why he strove mightily to foster a culture of responsibility within the Church, as an appropriate basis for a new Springtime.

This does not mean that all the insights of liberalism must be rejected, or that in giving a particular yet distorted emphasis to certain elements in the more constructive Christian tradition, liberalism has not taught us more readily to identify these seeds so that we can nurture them better. Man is weak and fallen; all cultures are limited; if we have overlooked something then we should draw timely reminders from wherever we can. But every authentic and rich human culture is inescapably religious and, as we have seen, liberalism intrinsically opposes both religion and the essentially cooperative fundamentals of cultural development.

Madness typically sees things that are not there, fails to see things that are really there, distorts even what it really sees, and hovers between ideology and monomania. As sure as sanity is the only effective response to madness, the building of authentic human culture, expressed and nourished through a variety of robust intermediary institutions, is the only effective response to liberalism. Moreover, this building must proceed independently of liberalism’s agent, the all-consuming modern State. This is enormously difficult. It requires immense sacrifice. But it must be done.

For more concrete treatment of intermediary institutions, see Intermediary Institutions Represent, Preserve and Shape a Robust Culture.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Aug. 13, 2012 12:18 PM ET USA

    Jeff, Strongly disagree. There are two kinds of Liberalism -- French Revolution Liberalism (the Left) and American Revolution Liberalism (Populism). The Declaration of Independence places its authority in "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God." The US was founded on a God-based Natural Law / Natural Rights worldview. It limits the state, declaring theological analysis beyond state expertise. But it acknowledges God and religion. Do not blame the American founders for the alien Left.

  • Posted by: Barbnet - Aug. 13, 2012 7:36 AM ET USA

    We are divided. Do our bishops realize how desperately we need leadership? Do they realize that theft takes many forms? Isn't borrowing $100 billion a month and placing the repayment burden on our grandchildren a form of theft? Many urban bishops take government money for charitable purposes. No doubt this produced more efficient use of the money but did it also cause the bishops to put on blinders? Bishops groveling to rulers is a throwback to Europe after the emergence of nation states

  • Posted by: martin.kurlich4399 - Aug. 10, 2012 6:46 PM ET USA

    I firmly believe that the Liberalism of the past century is a spiritual and mental disorder. This disorder’s source is not found in chemistry, biology or genetics. It’s found in sinful choices. However, I’m not expecting this disorder to be listed any time soon in The Catechism nor in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 09, 2012 8:40 PM ET USA

    If one speaks in terms of pathology or illness, it is certain that liberalism's effects on the general welfare are indeed end-stage. The subject of grace does not appear anywhere above. Liberalism does not cede the necessity of grace. However, "man is (truly) weak and fallen." Is it possible the Church has something indispensible to offer? Is it possible the fundamentals have not changed after all? Is it possible that our very existence demands "immense sacrifice" always and everywhere?