Recently, political philosophers D. C. Schindler, Mark T. Mitchell, and Patrick Deneen have decided to assess the state of American liberalism and decide whether it is worth defending. In their view, it is not. In Freedom from Reality, Schindler argues that that liberalism has its foundation in the political philosophy of John Locke, and Locke’s philosophy is “diabolical” in its original Greek meaning of “divisive”—that Lockean liberty divides the individual from firm notions of the good, from other individuals, and from attachment to the created world. In The Limits of Liberalism, Mitchell laments how liberalism facilitates the abandonment of place and tradition, in which the autonomous individual senses no obligation to her homeland or even her family, but rather is a citizen of the world committed to personal consumption and identity politics. Finally, Deneen, in his sweeping Why Liberalism Failed, outlines how liberalism relies on pre-liberal institutions to further its ideological goals of technological, economic, and political liberation. Technological liberation frees the individual from physical limits of the body. Economic liberation frees the individual from constraints on satisfying any number of personal preferences or desires. Political liberation frees the individual from external authorities that condemn the improper use of technology or money.
Read together, the summary position would be this: the divisions inherent in Lockean liberty divided individuals from their world, giving them a false sense of freedom from their neighbors and compatriots, and directed them to dissolve communities for the sake of cosmopolitan ends of global capital and imperial redistribution.
While Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen have offered forceful critiques of liberalism, their arguments have shortcomings, and one of them will be the subject of this essay. The shortcoming is methodological. One problem with political philosophy is the tendency to overstate the importance of ideas and understate the importance of other factors, especially contingency and the role of political actors. As a result, liberalism becomes, as Samuel Goldman has argued, a Geist and critiques of liberalism become Geistgeschicten. In other words, liberalism becomes a kind of trans-historical political actor driving the behaviors and events in the world, which then requires describing all those behaviors and events in terms of the advancement of liberalism. While liberal ideas have had a powerful influence on contemporary politics, they are simply insufficient and too diverse to explain either individuals or their responses to contingencies. To provide some needful correction, therefore, I will put the three authors in conversation with the work of Philip Hamburger, who has chronicled the relationship between liberalism as its developed among leading individuals and institutions in the American context.
The Peculiar Vintage of American Liberalism
Liberalism has never had a prefabricated essence ascertained all at once or implemented with a coherent plan. Rather, liberalism has its own history of development based on how individuals have invoked it to confront real, often quite thorny political problems. Hence, liberalism has differed in time and place, as recently explored by Helena Rosenblatt. In the American context, “liberalism” was not the term used to define the political foundations of the Declaration of Independence or the American Constitution. These documents were understood to be the extension of an older British tradition, even if the British themselves had failed to keep it. American colonists had, by 1776, over one hundred and fifty years of experience of self-government in covenanted and compacted governments, and the language of individual consent to government and rights reserved by individuals against the government were there at the very moment the colonies were chartered.
Hence, as Donald S. Lutz finds that it is not right to call the Founding “Lockean” because the colonial origins of the Founding preceded Locke by decades. Rather, the Founders found in Locke something that articulated what their forebears already knew and understood when hewing logs to build a cabin in 1611. Moreover, during the Founding, Locke received attention only in the lead up to American Independence but faded into the background as matters of constitutional design arose upon the revolution’s success. During that period, jurist William Blackstone and republican theorist Montesquieu dominated the discourse, with David Hume, Samuel von Pufendorf, and Edward Coke each receiving more attention than Locke from 1780 onward. All were dwarfed by references to the Bible, especially, as Lutz discovered, to the book of Deuteronomy. One would only be surprised by this if one believed that the Founders were liberals. Some were, of a kind, but they were primarily republicans. Their appeal to “liberal” principles was, as James W. Ceaser, has argued, primarily to insist that the “rights of Englishmen” to which Americans, being no longer Englishmen, could no longer appeal. Rather, what made the rights of Englishmen truly rights was how they were grounded in nature, accessible by reason, and endowed by God. In addition, Paul DeHart has shown how this effort involved a combination of classical, Christian, and modern sources with the diverse and extensive experience in statecraft.
For these reasons, it is simply ahistorical to apply a prefabricated concept of liberalism onto the American Founding or attribute it to a rather complicated mix of ideas and influences expressed among the leaders at the time. The kind of liberalism Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen condemn has a significant place in American history, and it is specifically in American Protestant (and later secular) efforts to limit the influence of the Catholic faith here.
In the years following the Founding, the term “liberal” referred primarily to a person’s character. As Hamburger explains, in early 19th Century America a person was “liberal” if they were willing to consider different points of view. Such a trait was necessary in a young republic with citizens who must govern themselves in assemblies or candidates for elected office. According to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, the years of the Founding were a nadir in American religiosity (although a forthcoming book by Mark David Hall disputes this finding). What is undisputed, however, is how the Second Great Awakening that followed the Founding and continued through the 1840s stirred up a tremendous Protestant fervor. Almost immediately after this period, there followed the arrival of Irish Catholics. They arrived, at first, to escape British tyranny of their homeland but soon after by even larger numbers escaping the Great Famine. Those Irish (as well as German) Catholics quickly worked their way into the political world of the cities in which they settled, often quite excited by the prospect of full citizenship rights.
This posed a problem: When a town had a collection of Protestant denominations, it was relatively simple to lay aside doctrinal differences in political discussions as a liberal citizen. Catholics, however, answered to a “foreign” authority in Rome, and the Irish were sufficiently “foreign” to the mostly English, Welsh, and Scottish to warrant suspicion. This suspicion frequently led to violence. In 1834, Protestants burned down an Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1844 Protestants in Philadelphia, stirred up by the distribution of the English-translation Catholic Bible, rioted in the streets.
These Protestant outbursts coalesced into a prominent mid-nineteenth century faction called “Nativists,” who found a home in the Whig Party. Nativists tended to come from the artisan classes who were negatively affected by the arrival of Irish working in factories whose cheaper products displaced artisanal work and, hence, added to the animus for the Irish as minions of “popish plots.” In his recent book Liberal Suppression, Hamburger charts how Nativists began to use the term “liberal” during this period to refer not merely to a kind of political gregariousness but to an independent from “foreign influence.” To be “liberal,” then was the opposite of being Catholic. Because Americans loved liberty, they had to be Protestant, since Protestants rejected the impositions of foreign princes in favor of native liberty of conscience. Hence, Nativists identified themselves as the “American Party” and their political program as “Americanism.”
The early Nativists were animated by their Protestant enthusiasm, but over time, they moved from religious convictions to political ones. In Separation of Church and State, Hamburger details how, after the American Civil War, a group of “liberal” skeptics started the “National Liberal League” in opposition not merely to Catholics (though they were chief among those they opposed) but all religious claims to authority in public life. Their organization was short-lived but, as Hamburger argues, found successors in organizations like the American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. The APA and KKK affirmed that America was a Protestant nation, but they were careful not to say which denomination. To appear consistent with their anti-Catholicism, they ruled out any public assistance to religious group, arguing for a position of “theological liberalism,” or one that reduced matters of faith to the individual. This combination came together in the politics of James G. Blaine. During the 1870s, Blaine, a senator from Maine advocated for federal and state amendments prohibiting the public funding of “sectarian schooling,” nearly all of which were Catholic schools. A federal effort to pass such an amendment failed in 1875, but several states passed them. The eventual decline of the APA and infamy of the KKK eventually sapped them of influence, but in 1948 theological liberalism found new life in Congregationalist minister Paul Blanshard (who later pronounced his atheism) and Methodist bishop G. Bromley Oxnam in their Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, today known as Americans United. Indeed, one of the most shocking conclusions of Hamburger’s work is the direct link between the ideology of the KKK and today’s “humanist” associations.
The theological liberalism these groups expressed has some resemblance to ideas expressed by the Founders. Thomas Jefferson, who frequently spoke ill of Christian “priestcraft,” is perhaps the most obvious, since his rationale for religious freedom before the Virginia legislature affirms that individuals are alone responsible for ascertaining what obligations, if any, they have to the divine. However, James Madison supported Jefferson’s policy position though for different reasons, as found in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance petition before the Virginia legislature. He argued that disestablishment of any church was better for Christianity than establishing it. Detaching the church from the state demanded the church tend to the spiritual needs of its congregation rather than seek guarantees from state support. The latter made the church a lackey of the state and the state suddenly responsible for matters on which it had no competence, thereby compromising both. Later, Madison defended Catholics as just as good republicans as Protestants. The Catholic Charles Carroll of Carrollton bore witness to this. Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence and fought for ratification of the Constitution in Maryland. As one can see, the diversity of motives and beliefs among the Founders reveals how difficult it is to attribute a unifying power of explanation to a prefabricated concept of liberalism.
That said, liberalism as Schindler, Mitchell, and Deneen describe it is real and has negatively affected the role of traditional communities, especially the Catholic Church in America. That liberalism encountered constant resistance among American Catholics especially, who, as I have argued elsewhere, always condemned liberalism. Not only Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, (who called it “Nothingarianism”) but also Archbishop John Ireland (who called it “political Protestantism”), Venerable (soon to be Blessed) Fulton J. Sheen (who called it a “parasite on Christian civilization”), and even Father John Courtney Murray (who called it a cross between “free-church Protestantism” and “naturalistic humanism”). They did so always for the same reason—“liberalism” in matters of religion was always a stalking horse for limiting the influence of the Catholic Church.
Protestant Disestablishment and Secular Establishment
Early Nativists insisted that the United States was a Protestant nation that upheld conscience rights by refusing to impose one church onto the people, but, as they grew more secular, they moved to full disestablishment of all churches. Now, little remains of liberal Protestantism or even the nativism among liberals but only the hatred of orthodox Christianity (especially Catholicism), hence development from disestablishment to throwing out religious free exercise and coercing churches to comply with federal mandates that conflict with church teaching. In just a few generations, as Joseph Bottum tells it, Protestant theological liberals have become secular liberals.
The closer relationship between church and at least some aspects of the state helped legitimate secular liberal claims to neutrality over the partisanship of American churches. Secular liberals portrayed churches as arbitrary authorities seeking to subject individuals to their control, and the best instrument for liberation would be the state, whose disestablishment disentangled them from church matters and the best source of liberation for those seeking it from oppressive moralistic pastors. In short, the past few decades have been a reversal of the relationship that Alexis de Tocqueville thought vital to the alliance of the party of religion and the party of liberty. Now, secular liberals appear to be the party of liberty, and the churches are the party of religion.
As I explain in my book, Religion and the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, dogma does not need to be linked to a traditional religion. Secular liberalism is still a dogma, a dogma of what Tocqueville called “popular sovereignty” and repudiation of especially the Christian religion. This dogma operates differently from traditional religious dogma, which is fixed. The dogma of popular sovereignty constantly changes to satisfy the individuals who adhere to it. The only unchanging dogma is popular sovereignty, which demands individuals to determine their own private opinions within the limits set by the state.
For secular liberals, religious dogma is a rival and a threat. Religious dogmas claim to speak the truth and bind others to that truth, thus establishing a hierarchy of truth over mere opinion. Secular liberals identify truth not with the validity of the religious claims but with the power of the state. Therefore, secular liberals do not merely support the separation of church and state. They also favor the establishment of secular liberalism as the official religion of the state to be enforced rigorously on all institutions—from the liturgical calendar of the Google homepage to the inquisitorial role of Oberlin College administrators.
Conclusion: Whither “Liberalism”?
It is no coincidence that the three critics of liberalism considered here are Catholic. Both because of crises in the Catholic Church and because of the rapid social change of the past two decades, Catholic intellectuals have had to improvise an explanation and have found it to be liberalism. It is not so much wrong as incomplete, but it does explain how American Catholics and Protestants have diverged in their evaluation of liberalism. In the recent dustup between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, one saw this tension reach the surface. The Catholic Ahmari, in keeping with the American Catholic tradition, held liberalism in contempt for its failure to defend the common good, but for the Protestant French, liberalism was instrumental to forming a coalition for religious freedom against the external authority of the secular state. French seems not to understand that for much of American history, Protestants used the same argument against Catholics.
After all, American liberalism began as a modus vivendi among American colonists seeking a common good in independence shared by Protestant and Catholic patriots alike. However, liberalism became an American Protestant project to suppress Catholicism, and then an alliance between Protestant and secular Americans for that same purpose. Ironically, now Protestants and Catholics ally against the secular liberals, and it should not escape notice that the case finally overturning a Blaine amendment, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc v. Comer, had—perhaps even required—a Protestant church for a petitioner. Despite this ugly history, however, people of faith must defend their conscience rights by disestablishing secular liberalism.
 Rita Koganzon reaches a similar conclusion when reviewing Rosenblatt’s book, although the European experience differs substantially from the American one.