The (Religious) Problem with Liberalism

by
January 15, 2016

On the eve of the 2016 presidential elections, it appears that a progressive version of political liberalism is the giant shaping and expressing the will of the majority of Americans. But given enough time, every political ideology is exposed for what it is—a flawed human system of political salvation that cannot deliver on it promises. Liberalism is no exception.

I hope to expose liberalism briefly in this essay, but must first stop to define what is meant by “political liberalism.” The word “liberal” is used in significantly different ways in the United States today. For many on the political right, the word is uttered as a slur. For others, it conjures up vague but grand notions of equality and freedom. For nearly all of us, “liberalism” exists as one of those ideas that we think we intuitively know, but that when pressed, we find difficult to define.

In its broadest definition, liberalism refers to a constitutional and representative government that emphasizes liberty and personal freedom (hence the name: liber is Latin for “free”). In this sense, most Westerners, and especially Americans—even the self-identified conservative ones—are political liberals. Nor is this a shameful designation: the Western notions of liberty and freedom stemmed in large part, though not exclusively, from the Christian faith.

Political liberalism takes on ideological dimensions as it elevates individual freedom and autonomy to ultimate status. This can manifest in a sort of social progressivism, because when individual autonomy is made the chief moral arbiter, norms are liable to constant change. The epitome of our societal obsession with the liberal ideology (and idolatry) is the cliché, “Follow your heart.” Which is another way of saying, “I have the right to do whatever I please.” The deleterious fruits of such an attitude—elective (and frequent) abortion, embarrassingly high divorce rates, nearly complete disregard for biblical sexual mores—are legion. Political liberalism, in this broad sense, can also manifest itself in conservatism, libertarianism, and other ideologies.

Political Liberalism in the West

In Political Visions and Illusions, political scientist David Koyzis demonstrates that individual autonomy is the core belief of the liberal creed.[1] Liberals believe that humans should be free to direct their own lives. From this belief stems a corollary belief: individuals have the right to own property and to make their own choices. There is only one inherent limit on these choices—the rights of other individuals. But provided a person’s choices do not directly interfere with the rights of another, the liberal ideology gives carte blanche.

The emphasis here is clearly on the individual rather than the socio-political community. Indeed, liberals tend to reduce the community to little more than an aggregate of autonomous individuals. In a hypothetical “state of nature” (an imaginary state of affairs in which there are only individuals, and not governments), individuals are free. The downside of this freedom, however, is that they do not have sufficient protection, and so they enter into a contract with one another, voluntarily, to form a governed society. Thus government is a sort of necessary evil in the liberal system, the only means by which individuals can remain free agents.

Koyzis goes on to note the way this creed has taken shape in the West.[2] At first, the state existed to protect people and their property. Before long, however, Western liberals were asking to be protected not only from powerful threats to their personhood and property, but also to other less obvious “threats,” such as a lack of sufficient resources. Instead of wanting the government to clear the space so they could pursue life, liberty, and happiness, people wanted the government to step into that space in order to provide those interests. And why not? When “I want” lies at the center of the ideology, it becomes natural to look to a power as large as the state to make up for what I cannot provide for myself.

Finally, in its present state, liberals expect the government to accommodate their personal desires, and to accommodate them in a religiously and morally neutral manner. More to the point, it expects the government never to cast moral judgments on their desires. Thus when their poor judgment or immoral choices cause negative consequences, the liberal populace expects the government to ameliorate those consequences (e.g. “Have you had five babies out of wedlock? The government will be happy to marry you in order to take care of those babies. Or even happier to kill them in the womb beforehand.”)

Political Liberalism as False Religion

It is obvious that I find liberalism’s excesses harmful, but I am trying not to skew the situation. Political liberalism finds itself in a real dilemma: on one hand, it has deified individual autonomy and free choice; on the other hand, it naturally inclines to pull the levers of government to assist when that autonomy doesn’t work out well. Thus government intervention increases, even though this runs contrary to liberalism’s entire aim.

The problem with liberalism is not that it expects the government to help people. Governments exist for just such a purpose. The problem is that liberalism misidentifies society’s “root evil” as heteronomous authority (any type of authority that does not issue from within the autonomous individual). Errantly, it places its hopes in ideologically-liberal political parties that promise to maximize the individual’s autonomy and minimize any external authorities. Because of its overheated allegiance to individual autonomy, it cannot in the end make sense of the individual’s need for community. In its worst forms, it forthrightly wishes to abolish God so that individuals can finally create themselves and belong to themselves. Liberalism easily follows the broad road to Babel, as we seek to make a name for ourselves in overt defiance of God.

The negative consequences of political liberalism are manifold, but foremost among them are the ironic loss of freedom because of the expanse of government, and the loss of human flourishing because of the sidelining of moral law. The liberal ideology buys the lie that expelling God from the system will lead to greater fulfillment. But it learns, as did Adam and Eve, that what seems pleasing to the eye only leads to disappointment and death. If we saw it for what it truly was, none of us would desire independence from God.

Pragmatically, political liberalism eventually suffocates as the government swells. Western liberal governments have evolved to become “choice enhancement” and “desire fulfillment” providers.[3] But this is a pricey venture. Once they have achieved this status, they must increase taxes so they can redistribute according to their own preferences, fulfilling desires and enhancing choices (government-funded abortion). They must become involved in image management, helping various actors or sectors of society achieve the social esteem they desire (e.g. judicial legislation of same-sex marriage). They overstep their bounds by extending federal oversight into cultural spheres where they have no jurisdiction, such as family and church (e.g. government intrusion into the family’s right to raise and educate their own children).

Liberalism also realizes that a transcendent morality conflicts with choice enhancement and desire fulfillment. Thus it is willing even to overthrow any moral underpinning that threatens its god of individual autonomy. It encourages its citizens to suspend moral judgment and dispense with religious and moral convictions—except, of course, those judgments and convictions that are currently favored by the liberals of that era. Step out of line on one of these key issues and liberal wrath is sure to follow.

Such an emphasis on individual desires and choices degrades civic life in ways too myriad to mention. This culture of rampant individualism influences American politics and public life to the point that it becomes institutionalized in the political realm. Thus institutionalized, it reinforces autonomous individualism in every realm of society and culture. Elaine Storkey puts it well when she writes:

The culture of individualism is vast…and goes far beyond the political realm. It is bolstered, for example, by a daily reinforcement of themes such as success, happiness, reward, personality, choice, independence, and self-discovery. The result is a philosophy of life that sees relationships as externally constructed, and centered around fulfillment, happiness, or some self-constructed goal or ideal to which the dynamics of relationships become subject. Personal achievement, psychic rewards, self-esteem, popularity, and self-presentation are highly valued, while humility, vulnerability, modesty, and patience score less well. . . . The overall impact on relational living has been that relationships, formerly characterize by truth, increasingly are assumed to be impermanent. The normative structures of trust, mutuality, love, and faithfulness have been replaced by ones where negotiation, reward, litigation, and power dealing are seen as normal.[4]

Liberalism, as an ideology, enthrones the self. And self-centeredness corrodes society. Yet, as Koyzis writes, rather than acknowledging that self-centeredness is an inherently faulty foundation for social life, “Liberals increasingly call on government to ameliorate, if not altogether eliminate, such consequences so they can continue to engage in this fruitless quest. This inevitably leads to an expansion in the scope of government that is difficult to contain within any boundaries whatever.”[5]

Conclusion

Liberalism may begin with righteous intentions, but its consequences reveal it for what it is—a false religion, unable to provide the salvation it promises. Deifying individual autonomy and sovereignty, it cuts humanity off from the Lord of life, the creator and guarantor of human freedom. Seeking to become free, we made ourselves doubly enslaved. As the Apostle Paul put it, “Claiming to be wise, [we] became fools,” greedily exchanging endless life for endless appetite (Romans 1:22).

As J. Budziszewski so aptly put it, political liberalism is “a bundle of acute moral [and, it should be added, religious] errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions.”[6] The logic of liberalism, when untethered from a biblical foundation, becomes the logic of unhindered desire, a form of false worship that harms society. There remain signs of life within the liberal camp, but the best insights of liberalism must be wielded in support of a better, non-ideological, conception of politics and public life.

[Editor’s note: this is the second installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]

[1] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 47-53.

[2] Ibid., 53-65.

[3] Ibid., 59-65.

[4] Elaine Storkey, “Sphere Sovereignty and the Anglo-American Tradition,” in Luis E. Lugo, ed. Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Emphasis added.

[5] Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions, 63-64.

[6] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 89.



Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.