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Christ is our Compass in the Midst of the Storm
Classical liberalism is not an original and better version of modern liberalism
“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him! (Mark 4:37-41)”
Liberalism, like conservatism, is not a political ideology per se but an epistemological orientation or method for understanding the world.1 This term has become linked to leftism or statism today. With a veneer of policy prescriptions, these views have been wedded to parties. Republicans are supposed to be conservative, and Democrats house the liberals. However, these orientations do not have a well-defined core. Instead, they guide us in different directions while stemming from a complicated past.
By contrast, an ideology is a political and philosophical pseudo-religion that informs and inhabits a political party and movement. These include Communism, Socialism, Feminism, Environmentalism, Corporatism, or Republicanism. These ideologies compete with traditional philosophies such as Confucianism, cultural institutions related to tribe and family ties, and religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism for preeminence in a nation. Where historically, liberalism and conservativism have acted as two broad categories of thought in British and American governance.
Conservatism originating with Edmund Burke is practically seen as both holding onto truth and a grasping adherence to the past. All religions by necessity must fasten to traditions in rituals and text. But conservatism in a political sense is best understood as the belief that if social and civil institutions are not broken, they should be left alone. This requires an accurate judgment of what constitutes brokenness.2 And those men who seek to fix what is broken must necessarily be buttressed by a Christian morality that recognizes human sinfulness and thus limitations.3 Additionally, what works in reality is preferred to what might work in fantasy or imagination. Change is suspect and slow.
The classical liberal was the first true change agent on the political scene: a man who sought to reform the traditional hierarchical structures of society through economic freedom and political liberty.
Examples of this nascent expression of liberalism in modern political science are found in the economic thinkers John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo.4 These ideas grew during the American Revolution and in many ways were first put into practice here. American-style liberals such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine pressed a democratic impulse forward but tended to overestimate the egalitarian reach of political revolt. They also rejected the boundaries and guidelines provided by the Christian faith, while acquiescing to partnerships with strong orthodox Christians (see: John Adams, John Jay) who aided the cause of liberty. This tension is seen in liberal sympathy for the French Revolution which produced the excesses of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Maximilien Robespierre.
As America matured and expanded our own version of classical liberalism was baked into the cake so to speak. Corrective measures had been taken to direct changes, namely a firm national Constitution. But this document assumed the classical liberal social compact was held together by the societal glue of a fundamental Christian faith. We had embarked on a mission to upend centuries of monarchy and tyranny so to do so required new institutions and models of governance.
Then the American Civil War subsumed arguments about economic freedom under mounds of dead bodies. We found that what worked for certain people, slavery, did not work for others. This massive conflict pushed classical liberalism to the back burner as many decades of integration were required to process the changes that had taken place in the first four generations of America. By the 1960s-1980s classical liberalism made a resurgence and morphed into American libertarianism with people like Pat Buchannan. He and others like him took on the label paleoconservative (old) to contrast with the globalist views of converted Communists who took on the label neoconservatives (new).
Buchannan severely questioned the American idealism of neocons who claimed that democracy is exportable like McDonald’s hamburgers or a pair of Levi’s. He was proven right on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, he rejected the idea that we can import American creedal anchor babies who claim they value equality and freedom but come from countries that are steeped in authoritarianism and poverty. He is being proven right now by many illegal immigrants who do not share our values. Setting foot on American soil does not make someone just as much an American as an immigrant who is educated in language, culture, and civics and takes vows of citizenship.
Conservatives attempted to invite libertarians into our big tent, but many wanted to light up their weed and have an orgy or party instead of submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Libertarians had a live-and-let-live attitude toward social policies. Abortion was not a hill to die on (unless you were in the womb). But, in 1996 the computer businessman from Texas Ross Perot took the mantle from a confused Libertarian Party and ran a third-party campaign on a “giant sucking sound” anti-NAFTA platform.
Businesses linked to the Koch family and the Chamber of Commerce disagreed with Perot and pushed libertarianism in favor of immigration. This meant that cheap labor was tied to free market economics. Like modern liberals, many libertarians began to support open borders and parrot the catchphrase “diversity is our strength.” No. Morality was once our strength. The USA has welcomed immigrants but honestly, our strength is wider and deeper than diversity. Anyone who thinks that diversity is a singular boon to a culture knows nothing about the benefits of homogeneity and assimilation. Over time, people can become unified but initially, there will be a period of trials. Immigration must be managed and allowing labor to move freely between countries with different values will destroy, or at least massively transform, the host country.
We must have some internal measures to regulate freedom and promote responsibility. Both laws and the will to implement punishment emanate from our moral core values and duties found in service to Jesus Christ. Ethics are further expressed in cultural taboos, norms, and mores. This is a behaviorist principle that is mainly true: we get more of what we allow and less of what we sanction to make extinct.
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Every nation will limit speech in some way, either for good or evil. Should ban racial slurs from all public use, as well as blasphemy and pornography? What if music and movies were returned to the pre-2000s rating systems (which are closer to the PG-13 ratings of today)? What would you lose if there were fewer F-words in rap and less skin on screens?
Free speech absolutism has become another libertarian buzzword that sounds good in theory but opens the door to all kinds of debauchery. This is another area where Christians who slide into classical liberalism need to put on the breaks. If you believe that human sexual exploitation and traffic is a horrible evil, then you must take action to stop it. This starts with cutting off the market for smut. Doing nothing is not an option.
But what about the separation of church and state? Some Christians will clamor that we cannot mandate faith, nor should we require church attendance. They will cite the US Constitution which states that we must not have a religious test for office. And then they will express their heartfelt concern that executing homosexuals and rebellious children goes way too far and is really a bad look for the church. These are red herrings. Clearly, Christians wrote protections into our laws to prevent these internecine battles from raging. But that doesn’t mean that Christians are prohibited from leading in righteousness or further punishing wickedness. God will separate the wheat from the chaff. We can use discernment and wisdom to avoid the bed of political prostitutes.
Should Christians hold to the idea of a secular and religiously neutral public square? No. This is an untenable position. Even if the idea of pluralism has been appealing for the last few decades, it is no longer feasible to sit on the sidelines. We can allow people who believe differently than us to benefit from our faith and freedom, but not alter it. Practically one ideology or religion will assert dominance in our national conscience.
Our comfortable lives of passive and timid weakness are coming to an end. One way or another you will be made to care. Whether with a national divorce through a form of succession or an economic upheaval and federal collapse, our nation will change in the coming years. These changes will not be instigated by liberals but imposed from above. They are coming and needed.
The only question is: where will you be standing when the storms hit?
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).
Dilley, Stephen C. (2 May 2013). Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension. Lexington Books. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0-7391-8107-2.
Thomas Sowell (1995). The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08995.
Thomas Sowell (1987). A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-06912-6
Steven M. Dworetz (1994). The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution.