The sacred worth of the liberal state

The Tablet, 8 April

We have taken the liberal state for granted. The tragedy in Ukraine has awakened many commentators to a renewed appreciation and admiration for the miracle of liberal democracy – flawed, tottering but still standing. They salute the courage and resilience of the people of Ukraine, and marvel at the extraordinary price they are willing to pay to belong to the “free world”. They note that liberal democracy has a new icon in the form of Volodomyr Zelenskiy. Then their gaze turns to their own flabby, cosseted culture. Let this be our wake-up call. The oration might cite Auden: we have colluded in “a low, dishonest decade”. 

On one level, these writers, journalists and broadcasters have no trouble articulating the features of liberal democracy. It is a form of politics based on individual rights, tolerance of opinions we don’t much like, free elections, free speech, free press, equality under the law, and so on. But something is missing. Such defences feel rather little, rather dry, rather dated, even rather beleagured. Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis, first set out (with more nuance and qualification than Fukuyama is usually given credit for) in 1992, that the evolution of forms of government has reached its highest form with the creation of liberal democracy, has been scoffed at from Left and Right almost from the day it appeared. (Fukuyama himself has recently published a sequel recommending his own strategy for keeping the flame alive.)

This exposes the gaping thirty-years’ gap where new and richer defences of classic liberalism should have been. There’s a sense of stagnation, and a sense that liberal thinking lacks vitality and depth. Yes, when a crisis comes and when we see what the alternatives to it entail, we can agree that liberal democracy is the best – or least worst – type of politics in a fallen world – but why do we say so in a tone of weariness rather than excitement?

Theology has been complicit in the malaise in liberal thought. Instead of prodding the liberal tradition to new life, some  influential strands in contemporary theology have demoralised and undermined it. You might think that most secular commentators are utterly indifferent to religious thought, but in fact theology has remained surprisingly intellectually influential. Of course religious conservatives – Catholic and Protestant – have always looked on liberalism with hostility, seeing it as a rival creed, a deadly enemy. But in Britain mainstream religious thought – especially in the established church – was broadly supportive of the forward march of liberal values of toleration, of live and live, of individual freedom. But in the past thirty years, that mainstream liberal tradition has faltered, especially in academic circles. Since the 1990s, most of the most influential theologians have been sharply sceptical about liberalism. We can trace this to a book published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and, to a lesser extent, George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, published three years later.

Both were decidedly unenthusiastic about the enlightenment and the conceits of modernity. Liberal individualism was a bogus ideology, a new barbarism. They influenced theologians as widely different as the American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and the English Anglican theologian John Milbank, founder of the “radical orthodoxy” movement, which declared that theology must denounce the idolatry of secular modernity and declare itself the true foundation of politics. With dazzling erudition, Milbank presented this startlingly neoconservative position as cutting-edge, postmodern. Two of Milbank’s followers have had some political influence: Phillip Blond’s book Red Tory influenced the Cameron government, and led some policy-wonks like David Goodhart to herald postliberalism as the big new political idea. Adrian Pabst’s co-authored book Blue Labour and his more recent Postliberal Politics have impressed some politicians. 

These thinkers call for a deeper democracy, based in religion rather than in the falsity of secular individualism and the excesses and idolatries of the free market. Their dislike of liberalism has a strong Marxist tinge (many of these theologians were deeply sympathetic to Marxism in their youth). They protest that they are not dangerous reactionaries, just harmless academics. But it is not entirely harmless to idealise a unity of religion and politics, to attack political liberalism for disrupting that unity – and, when geopolitics tuns ugly, and real-life theocracy rears its head, to claim to be loyal defenders of liberal democracy against its enemies. Some postliberals are less ardent (one might include Rowan Williams and Giles Fraser here, as well as Goodhart and Pabst), but they too see liberalism negatively, as a mix of rampant capitalism and community-eroding individualism. They fail to see that liberalism is baby as well as two varieties of bathwater. 

Might the grief and suffering caused by Putin’s war jolt theology from this dead-end? His aggression is clearly rooted in a theocratic vision, and a hatred of the liberal state. Should this not give our brainy postliberals pause? Should it not lead Christians to reflect on the sacred worth of the liberal state? Yes, the sacred worth. For it is no secondary matter, that people should be free from tyranny, that people should live in states that respect human rights and freedoms. Liberal democracy is not the realisation of the kingdom, any more than it is the “end of history”, but it is a major expression, or outworking, of the Christian gospel, of the Spirit in human history. And it involves the rejection of the old theocratic model of religion and politics, the old ideal of their unity. 

Some argue for a sort of neutrality: liberal democracy is the least worst form of government, but to affirm it too strongly is idolatrous. But this just allows the reactionary view that liberalism is a threat to religion to gain ground. The liberal state is largely secular – so how can it be seen as holy? Well, liberal Christians believe that we must accept a tension, or dialectic, between the secular shared public ideology of liberalism, and Christianity. The dream of theopolitical harmony must be renounced, until God brings his kingdom. This is not a sell-out to a secular ideology, for the liberal state has Christian roots. It echoes the kenosis of Christ. 

The Church of England, as you might expect, is wonderfully on the fence. It is the established church of a liberal state – which commits it both to the old order of established churches, and the new order of affirming liberal democracy. Until recently it seemed to downplay the former, and accentuate the latter. Now, who knows? Has its attachment to liberal democracy weakened? No, but it has become harder to voice, with so much of the most influential theology of the past thirty years pointing in the other direction. It is time to articulate the Church’s positive link with the liberal state, with unprecedented clarity.