By In Politics

Trees and Three-Legged Stools: Reno and Gregg on Novak’s legacy

First Things‘ editor R. R. Reno appears to have dropped something of a bombshell in the October issue by cautiously raising questions about The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the reference, of course, being to the late Michael Novak’s eponymous 1982 book. According to Novak’s argument, our society can be compared to a stool with three legs consisting of economic freedom, democratic political institutions, and a moral-cultural base rooted in Judeo-Christian religion. If one of these legs collapses, the stool will come down with it. Economic freedom, shorn of moral constraints, will turn into mere self-seeking. We ought not to subvert any one of the three lest we lose the whole. Nevertheless, as anyone reading Novak is aware, he took great pains to affirm the legitimacy of the free market against socialists and a certain type of conservative reluctant to soil his hands with the tainted ink of banknotes.

While Reno admits to having been favorably impressed by Novak’s book when it first appeared, more than thirty years later he now believes that its focus on the dynamism of the free society underestimates the importance of stability and loyalty to the permanent things of life. At this moment in history, with so much of our cultural patrimony under siege from so many fronts, Reno is persuaded that the “new birth of freedom” Novak championed “has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture.” In retrospect, Reno holds, “we underestimated the flesh-eating character of our free market economy, which now markets ‘community’ and uses ‘social justice’ as a way to sell products.”

Not so, writes the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg, in First Things and the Market Economy: A Response to R. R. Reno. Gregg believes that “parts of Reno’s argument about free markets are seriously flawed,” and he has three elements in mind.

First, practically and empirically, it is not at all apparent to him that the free market has triumphed over its alternatives, as seen in various international trade agreements which are typically “replete with page after page of conditions agreed upon by governments,” including “exemptions, preferential treatment of particular products, etc.” “Call it what you will,” Gregg observes, “but it’s far removed from the free trade envisaged by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.” Moreover, Gregg cites evidence to suggest that the American economy has seen a recent increase in government regulation and intervention.

Second, Gregg believes that Reno has not been fair to Novak, who, in his subsequent writings, “did think long and hard about those permanent non-market conditions that promote the flourishing of individuals and communities,” including “the importance of stable traditional families.” Remember the three-legged stool once again. The market cannot function well in a nation lacking strong social mores and vital religious faith.

Third, Gregg follows Novak in arguing that, despite our society’s “shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy [and] the decline of common decency,” we cannot hold our “liberal institutions” responsible. In fact, the only antidote to “vulgar relativism” and “nihilism with a happy face” is the general recognition that there is such a thing as truth and that we are capable of grasping it.

While I can sympathize to some degree with both Novak and Gregg, I think Reno is on to something that we ignore to our detriment.

First, I cannot help concluding that, in addressing the market as they do, Reno and Gregg are in large measure discussing different, albeit related, phenomena. Unless one is an ideological libertarian, one will likely recognize that the degree of government intervention in the economy is a matter of prudential judgement. Should we raise the minimum wage? Many will argue that it is a matter of justice that workers at the bottom of the ladder be fairly compensated and that this calls for a higher minimum wage. Others counter that raising the minimum wage will aggravate unemployment. Who is right? Well, that’s up for negotiation, and economists rightly seek empirical evidence before deciding. If Gregg is correct that economic life is increasingly strangled by unnecessary government interference, then obviously the balance between the two needs to be revisited and perhaps altered accordingly. I doubt that Reno would disagree.

But I think Reno is getting at something much more deep-seated than prudential considerations about concrete economic policies. The reality is that, at least since Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau sought to anchor political community in a voluntary contract among sovereign individuals, the larger liberal tradition has sought to recast all sorts of communities and relationships as voluntary associations. This larger trend has seen individuals decreasingly willing to defer to the authoritative character of especially marriage, family, church institution, and state, all of which are not easily reducible to mere private contracts and whose intrinsic internal structures are set, as Christians believe, by a loving and providential God. Chastity and fidelity in marriage are not arbitrary traditions changeable at the whims of the partners but are norms basic to the very institution of marriage.

If I am understanding Reno correctly, what he is critiquing is the larger trend within liberalism to extend this voluntary principle too far: to take an undoubted good, namely, individual freedom, and to make of it nearly a god before which every other consideration must bow. If we can choose items in a shopping mall, why not choose our own identities and compel everyone else to pretend that we are what we plainly are not? This is by no means to denigrate the shopping mall, but only to recognize that the consumer society, in which the many social and cultural goods are reduced to marketable commodities, is a dangerously distorted one.

This suggests to me that, though all metaphors admittedly fail when pressed too far, that of the three-legged stool tempts us to misconstrue the place of culture and oversimplifies the true complexity of our society. Even using the term democratic capitalism to cover this complexity privileges the political and the economic, while capitalism, though possibly useful in some contexts, unduly calls to mind the reductive framework of Marx and his heirs. Russell Kirk better comprehends the drawbacks associated with Novak’s term: “Now in truth our society is not a ‘capitalist system’ at all, but a complex cultural and social arrangement that comprehends religion, morals, prescriptive political institutions, literary culture, a comprehensive economy, private property, and much more besides.”

Of course, our societies are more than just polities, economies and culture, with the last element reduced to a phenomenon somehow parallel to the other two. They are at least economies and polities, but they include a variety of communal formations reflecting the multifaceted character of human life. It seems better to recognize that religious, moral and cultural factors are not one leg among others, but are much more basic.

Allow me, then, to shift the metaphor from stool to tree. The roots of the tree are the religious underpinnings of a society, and the trunk is the cultural context fed by the roots. The various activities and communities are the branches, pushing out in multiple directions with their leaves and flowers contributing in their own way to the life and beauty of the entire organism. These branches include artistic endeavors, sporting clubs, public and private libraries, museums, schools, universities, trade unions, professional associations, and a host of other communities which, taken together, are often called civil society. If one of the branches breaks in the wind, the tree will still survive, and new branches will grow in its place. If, however, the trunk is damaged, this will negatively affect and perhaps kill the entire tree. As First Things‘s writers have always affirmed—to shift the metaphor yet again—politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from religion.

Neither politics nor economics is foundational in the same way culture is. Witness the fact that those countries adopting an American-style constitution have not been notably successful in avoiding authoritarianism because they lack the same cultural soil that nurtured that constitution in the eighteenth-century English-speaking Atlantic colonies.

Human beings are created to make culture, as affirmed in Genesis 1:26-30. But we make it in different ways in different times and places, and according to the foundational religious worldviews that condition our lives, both as individuals and as communities. If we come collectively to believe, contrary to the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, that we belong to ourselves and that God’s world is ours to do with as we please, then this possibly tacit conviction will of course shape and misshape our shared spaces accordingly. Liberty, an undoubted good, will then become mere license, constantly pushing against the sensible and proper limits established to constrain it. Given the seriousness of this danger, I believe Reno is correct to warn us of where we are and where we are likely heading if we persist on the current path.

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Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

In response to the evident defects of liberalism, we might well ask what the alternatives might be. We evidently cannot return to the religious establishments of old. Even the most dedicated communitarian is highly unlikely to make such an obviously retrograde proposal. Although at least one church body has long sought to amend the US Constitution to recognize the mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ, no one would argue that, for example, the state’s coercive apparatus should enforce ecclesiastical judgements issued against recalcitrant members.

Everyone now presumably agrees that the execution of heretics handed over by the Inquisition to the civil authorities was not only a very bad idea but fundamentally unjust as well. Nevertheless, the major Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries charge the civil authorities with the responsibility to “protect the sacred ministry; and thus [to] remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.” By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this confessional charge to the political authorities was sounding less and less plausible in the increasingly pluralistic societies of Europe and North America.

In this context, the Dutch statesman and polymath Abraham Kuyper charted a different path in articulating the relationship between church and state. To begin with, Kuyper understood better than many of his predecessors that the church-state issue was part of a larger societal pattern characterized by a multiplicity of agents, including individuals and a variety of communal formations. In a mature differentiated society, an ordinary person would find herself embedded in many overlapping communities of which the gathered church and the state were only two.

The question is thus enlarged: How do church and state relate to each other? now becomes: What are the proper relationships among church, state, marriage, family, school, business enterprise, and a whole host of voluntary associations? If Thomas Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” is inadequate to account for the complex relations between state and gathered church, it is certainly inadequate for understanding how a variety of human communities function in the real world.

Kuyper came up with a description for this phenomenon: soevereiniteit in eigen kring, that is, sovereignty in its own sphere or sphere sovereignty. Of course, God himself is ultimate Sovereign, but in his grace, he has conferred limited sovereignty, or, better yet, authority, on human beings and institutions, none of which can claim this ultimacy for itself. “This perfect Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah at the same time directly denies and challenges all absolute Sovereignty among sinful men on earth, and does so by dividing life into separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty.”

Sphere sovereignty corresponds to Mouw and Griffioen’s “associational diversity,” but it is not without relevance for spiritual or directional diversity, even if it is not identical to it. The very notion of sphere sovereignty can hardly be religiously neutral because it is dependent on the recognition that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone and cannot be monopolized by a mere human individual or institution. In other words, what I like to call the pluriformity of authorities cannot so easily be divorced from directional diversity.

In fact, the relationship between these two types of diversity is a complicated one. Although many tend to conflate the different forms of diversity as if they were all of one piece, this is not exactly correct. The tolerance of different claims to truth so championed by Crick would, after all, allow one’s fellow citizens to believe in the very ideological illusions that would deny sphere sovereignty and ascribe ultimate sovereignty to the individual, the nation, the economic class or the state. This means that, despite the fact that the concept of sphere sovereignty, for many of us, seems better to account for societal pluriformity than does liberal individualism, the two approaches remain competitors and thus must be tolerated within the political arena.

Acknowledging pluriformity will thus stand in some tension with spiritual or directional diversity, which suggests that efforts at doing public justice to both realities will not reach an easy solution capable of commanding universal assent. The only way to lessen the tension may be for those of us who are persuaded that sphere sovereignty is superior to liberal individualism to show in practice how this superiority is manifested in ordinary life.

This is precisely what Kuyper sought to do both in his writings and in his practice. Two of his essays are particularly relevant to this effort. The first is titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” which he delivered fairly early in his career in 1869, that is, before he entered the Dutch Parliament and before he founded the Free University. Although this essay is perhaps marred by some of the elements of a typical nineteenth-century romantic nationalism, its central point has positive social and political ramifications: that God’s creation is a diverse creation with its unifying principle found in God alone, while a secularizing modernity is improperly preoccupied with seeking another locus of unity in something created. Hence the longstanding efforts of the various pagan and modern rulers to establish an imperial unity that would bring order to the apparent chaos of created diversity. As Kuyper puts it, “sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death.” The world strives for a stifling uniformity that would erase all legitimate distinctions found in God’s creation, but it does so in imitation of God’s plan, which is to unify creation in himself.

The second essay is simply titled, “Sphere Sovereignty,” and was delivered in 1880 on the occasion of the opening of the Free University. Sovereignty Kuyper defines as “the authority that has the right, the duty, and the power to break and avenge all resistance to its will.” Of course, only God can possess sovereignty in this absolute sense. Nevertheless, God has graciously conferred a portion of this sovereignty on a variety of earthly agents. As Kuyper affirms, “This perfect Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah at the same time directly denies and challenges all absolute Sovereignty among sinful men on earth, and does so by dividing life into separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty.” The state and the gathered church are but two of these spheres, which also include “a domain of the personal, of the household, of science, of social and ecclesiastical life, each of which obeys its own laws of life, each subject to its own chief.” The differences among these spheres are irreducible in that the sheer variety of spheres cannot be reduced to or derived from a single sphere superior to all others. God has invested each with its own authority and given it a distinctive calling within the larger panorama of his creation. This is something for which liberal individualism cannot easily account.

An example will suffice to illustrate this. I am lecturing a class of eighteen-year-olds in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, and someone walks into the room without prior knowledge of what she will find there. She may be aware that people are inside, but as yet she has no idea who these people are or what they will be doing or what sort of relationships might exist among them. However, once she enters the room, she does not have to employ sophisticated reasoning to intuit the presence of an instructor and students whose interactions are structured by the classroom context. She knows, almost without thinking, that she is not in the presence of a family. The reasons are obvious. The oldest person in the room is decades older than every one of the young people and physically resembles very few, if any, of them. In other words, he is obviously not their father. He is too short and dark, whereas the males in particular tend to be tall and blond. There is no way he could have sired all of them, at least without the co-operation of a large number of prospective female partners. In other words, there are unmistakable biological cues that this is not a familial community. The fact that the young people are seated at desks while the older adult is on his feet talking up a blue streak suggests that this is not a gathered church community either. Nor is it a parliamentary body, few of which would have eighteen-year-olds as deputies and certainly not in these numbers. Nor is it a business enterprise, a labor union or a garden club. The reality of the classroom community presents itself to the visitor almost immediately upon entry. It is not an abstraction created in her mind out of the raw data of aggregated individuals. The classroom is a classroom. The labor union is a labor union. State is state, and church is church. It is as simple as that.

Many people tend to assume, drawing on H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, that Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty is part of a grand effort at Christ transforming culture, perhaps through political means. Yet that is to misunderstand what sphere sovereignty is about. Yes, it has implications for political and other forms of social life, but it is above all a framework enabling us to understand the diversity of God’s creation, especially the human cultural and social project. It represents an effort to grasp social realities apart from the distorting effects of the post-revolutionary ideological illusions that sought unity somewhere other than in the creating, redeeming and sustaining God.

However, it is fairly evident to even the casual reader of Kuyper that he did not develop sphere sovereignty into a sophisticated theoretical framework capable of making fine but necessary distinctions. For example, he rather easily conflated political federalism, contextual diversity and societal pluriformity. It would fall to Kuyper’s more philosophical heirs, such as Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), to articulate a more consistent theoretical foundation for sphere sovereignty, something that would have an impact on such organizations as the Center for Public Justice, the Canadian think tank Cardus, the Christian Labour Association of Canada, the Acton Institute, and the network of Christian universities loosely associated with the Christian Reformed Church. In some fashion these would all affirm principled pluralism, including the spiritual or directional pluralism described by Mouw and Griffioen, yet they recognize that they still have an important task before them, namely, to persuade their fellow citizens that a framework taking seriously the diversity of God’s creation is superior to those attempting artificially to squeeze this diversity into a single principle, whether that be the sovereignty of the individual or that of the state, nation, people or class.

Acceptance of directional or spiritual diversity is not, in other words, a pretext for acquiescing in the persistence of differences of opinion that really do matter. There are still battles to be fought and there will continue to be such until Christ returns. But it does mean, in most circumstances, that we wage our battles with civil means, making our case before the watching world and demonstrating, as we are able, that recognizing and respecting societal pluriformity,  better than its competitors, leads to flourishing communities and balanced social development. There will never be a complete congruence between these two types of diversity, but one provides a context for us to promote the other to the best of our abilities, and that may be the best we can hope for in between the times.

Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

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Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

In Part 2 we examined the implications of Kuyperian and liberal pluralisms for ecclesiology, that is, our understanding of the nature and authority of the institutional church. We noted, in particular, that liberalism, following John Locke, is compelled to reduce it to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals.

There are two implications to this liberal move. First, it is incapable of accounting for structural differences among an assortment of communities. State and church are not essentially different from the garden club or the Boy Scouts. Whatever differences appear to the casual observer can be ascribed to the collective wills of the individuals who make them up. Proponents are persuaded that, even if different groups of citizens operate out of divergent comprehensive doctrines, they must be made to look beneath these commitments to what are believed to be the raw data of human experience that bind all persons together. These data are, of course, the constituent individuals themselves.

Every community can be easily understood as a collection of individuals who choose to be part of it for reasons peculiar to each member. There is nothing unusual about this approach, the liberal insists. Michael Ignatieff believes himself justified in asserting that liberal individualism is not peculiarly western or historically conditioned; it is human and universal: “It’s just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not.” Therefore if the claims of groups and individuals come into conflict, as they inevitably must, Ignatieff confidently concludes that “individual rights should prevail,” despite the contrary claims of nationalists, socialists and many conservatives of a communitarian bent.

The second implication flows logically from the first. If liberals claim that individualism is simply human and universal, then this implies that their own worldview must be privileged above any that denies this. Liberal tolerance is thus conditioned by a worldview that explicitly denies that it is a worldview, and thus finds no difficulty positioning itself as a supposedly neutral arbiter of the competing claims of the other alternative worldviews.

Yet there are those who object to this sleight of hand. Karl Marx, for one, famously denies that such neutrality is possible and argues that political institutions, like all other human agents, always act in behalf of a particular economic class, even if they claim impartiality. There is, in short, no neutrality in the global class struggle. Liberation theologians in Latin America and elsewhere refer to this lack of neutrality as a “preferential option for the poor,” an oft-used expression that does not sit well with the liberal emphasis on the autonomous freely-choosing individual.

However, one need hardly be a Marxist or a liberation theologian to recognize what is at work here. James Kalb points to what he calls the tyrannical character of liberalism, despite its proponents’ undoubtedly well-intended pleas for tolerance of religious differences. The liberal strategy for tolerance requires that the particular claims of traditional religions be softened to more manageable private lifestyle choices. “Even religion, to be legitimate, must transform itself so that it simply restates established egalitarian, rationalist, consumerist, and careerist values.” Moreover, “No religion can claim superiority over any other religion or over irreligion. Each must understand itself as an optional pursuit, and thus as not a religion at all.” Accordingly, the authoritative claims of church institutions will be tolerated only in so far as these institutions accept the norms of a liberal society. The church can continue to claim authority in some fashion over its members, but it cannot do so in a way that might be interpreted to negate the voluntary principle. No one has to belong to a church, after all, and those denominations emphasizing individual choice and free will tend to fit more comfortably into a society governed by a dominating liberal paradigm.

By contrast, an obviously hierarchical church body with a strong confessional identity may be seen as at least potentially disloyal, as was the case with the Roman Catholic Church in nineteenth-century America. As late as 1960, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy felt compelled to assure the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he would not be taking orders from the Pope in the conduct of his office. Similarly, in his famous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, New York Governor Mario Cuomo explicitly stated that his belief in his church’s teachings on abortion was a private belief with no bearing on his pursuit of public policy.

Of course, it would be unwise to state categorically that all professed liberals everywhere necessarily follow a consistent individualist approach to human communities and religious diversity. With some spectacular exceptions, most people are generally better than their ideological visions would make them if they were to follow them consistently. Remaining open to correction by the real world is key here.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny the historic tendency of liberalism in its various permutations to downplay the significance of nonvoluntary community and to individualize and relativize the claims of traditional religious worldviews. We see this in the increasing trend in the western world to reconfigure marriage as a mere private contract between (thus far!) two persons and to deny any intrinsic structure that might negate this contractual status and even to stigmatize those who adhere to a “thicker” understanding of the marriage covenant. We see it too in judicial efforts to redefine the limited personal liberties found in the English Bill of Rights and its successors (to, e.g., freedom of speech) as a more expansive and normless individual autonomy (e.g., freedom of expression) whose only limit is conceived in terms of John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

However, Mill’s harm principle, despite its superficial libertarian flavour, has totalitarian tendencies in so far as it is suspicious of those communities bound by standards unrelated to this principle. Liberalism thus negates the very pluralism it claims to uphold. This suggests that another approach is needed.

Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

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Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

As we noted in Part 1, liberalism attempts to guarantee pluralism by empowering the individual, often at the expense of the very communities that go into shaping her. But in so doing, liberalism denies these communities any authority not reducible to the wills of the component individuals.

If, for example, we were to agree with John Locke’s definition of the church, we would find ourselves in territory foreign to the mainstream of the historic faith. According to Locke, “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphasis mine). While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially protestants in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke’s definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the church as the covenant community of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who is its Saviour and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the corpus Christi which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the gospel to the world and especially to the church’s members.

Throughout the last two millennia, ecclesiastical councils have been convened on occasion to decide authoritatively on difficult doctrinal issues threatening to divide the church. These have yielded creeds and confessions considered binding on the faithful, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, deemed authoritative for the major Christian traditions in both east and west. The (Pseudo-)Athanasian Creed is most direct in its claims: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” It is, in short, the church, and not individual Christians, that defines the content of the faith.

It would be difficult to imagine an account of the faith and the church more inconsistent with the voluntaristic ecclesiology of Locke, who asserted that “everyone is orthodox to himself.” By contrast, from the earliest centuries the church as an institution has claimed the authority to determine what is and is not orthodox. Those Christians professing to be orthodox are in effect acknowledging that the terms for their membership in the church are not theirs to set as individuals. Beginning already with the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, the church as a body asserted its authority, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to resolve potentially divisive issues in binding fashion. To dissent from such decisions was regarded as schismatic and thus sinful.

In past centuries political authorities assumed that ecclesiastical schism was a danger to public order and thus sought to uphold the church’s authority in such matters to protect the unity of the realm. Although some observers like to describe this as a Constantinian settlement, it might better be labelled Theodosian, because it was the Emperor Theodosius who officially established Christianity as the favoured religion of the Roman Empire near the end of the fourth century.

It need hardly be emphasized that, two millennia into the Christian era, most of us live in polities characterized by a diversity of sincerely- and not-so-sincerely-held faiths. We in the west have become concerned, not with the presence of multiple faiths in our own societies, but with the lack of toleration of such multiplicity elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, where ancient Christian communities are increasingly besieged by the forces of radical Islam.

Nevertheless, the presence of faith communities adhering to a variety of ultimate beliefs is not without potentially troublesome political implications. This is something that our pre-modern forebears may have understood better than we do. Is law given by God or by the gods? And if by God, the God of Muhammad or the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ? Few Christians would wish to live under Sharia law, but increasing numbers of devout Muslims believe they are called to establish Sharia as the law of the land, whether in Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria or Great Britain. In the face of such evidently divisive efforts, how are we to go about living with each other? How can we come up with political principles enabling us to strike a modus vivendi with citizens of other faiths?

For several centuries now professed liberals have come up with what they believe to be the answer to this vexing question, and they think it sufficient to command the loyalties of all citizens irrespective of the “thick” comprehensive doctrines or worldviews to which they otherwise adhere. This liberal solution has profound implications for both directional diversity and societal pluriformity, and it amounts to this: every community and claimed communal obligation must be reduced to its component parts, namely, the wills of the individual members. To the extent that communal obligations exist, they can be justified only in so far as they conform to the voluntary principle. Communities, with all of their supposed differences, must be recast as mere voluntary associations.

We have seen how Locke did this with the gathered church institution, but he more famously did this with political community and even with marriage. In Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, a social contract among individuals comes to be deemed the source of all political obligation, as graphically illustrated in the famous frontispiece to the first edition of Hobbes Leviathan. Any authority that the state might claim over the individual can be legitimated only with reference to this originating contract.

In the later liberalism of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, we see a certain level of abstraction added to the social contract, which is reworked such that individuals now use their common reason, ostensibly disconnected from their thicker worldview commitments, to articulate principles of right agreeable to all. Sounds good in theory, but, because it is based on a faulty understanding of human nature and ignores the role ultimate beliefs inevitably play in life, it is unworkable in practice.

Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

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Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Although it can be misleading to seek the meaning of commonly-used words and expressions in their etymological origins, in the case of liberalism, the linguistic connection with liberty is all too obvious. The promise of liberty is an attractive one that holds out the possibility of living our lives as we see fit, free from constraints imposed from without. We simply prefer to have our own way and not to have to defer to the wills of others.

Yet even the most extensive account of liberty must recognize that it needs to be subject to appropriate limits if we are not to descend into a chaotic state of continual conflict, which English philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably labelled a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

Here I propose to compare two approaches to liberty, viz., those of liberalism and of the principled pluralism associated with the heirs of the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper. Although each claims to advance liberty, I will argue that the Kuyperian alternative is superior to the liberal because it is based on a more accurate appraisal of human nature, society and the place of community within it.

Arising in the context of an early modern repudiation of ancient, and seemingly outmoded, customs and mores, liberalism proposed to anchor human community in rational principles oriented around the self-interest of sovereign individuals. From Locke to Rawls the liberal project has sought to liberate public life from the particularities of the “thick” accounts of reality rooted in the ancient religious traditions. Why? Because these had apparently proven hopelessly divisive in previous centuries, engendering nearly continual warfare from Luther’s initial efforts at reforming the church 500 years ago to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Better, it was assumed, to anchor political order, not in a highly disputable claim of divine revelation, but in principles capable of being affirmed by all. Such principles would have to be rooted in a rationality whose only underlying assumption would be that individuals pursue their own interests as they themselves understand them.

Liberalism is thus more than just about liberty. Even in its mildest form it assumes that community is rooted in the collective wills of its individual members, thereby privileging the voluntary principle, that is, the belief that human flourishing depends on the free assent of sovereign individuals to their multiple obligations. The liberal project represents an effort to address the central dilemma of human life famously summed up by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the following maxim: “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”

Our very survival as a species in the face of hostile forces of nature depends on our ability and willingness to co-operate with each other for common purposes. If we do not do so, we are doomed at best to poverty and at worst to death. Nevertheless, in so far as we are interdependent, our individual wills are necessarily constrained by the rules we draw up to facilitate this co-operation. This is the paradox that Rousseau tried to address in his own proposals for political order. Although Rousseau, in his Social Contract, took these ideas in a superficially liberal direction, his recipe has definite totalitarian implications, thereby threatening to crush the very diversity that makes politics necessary and indeed possible.

According to the late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick, politics is all about the peaceful conciliation of diversity within a particular unit of rule. What is meant by this diversity? Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen identify three basic types: (1) directional or spiritual diversity, viz., the plurality of ultimate beliefs that bind particular communities but are potentially divisive of the larger body politic; (2) contextual diversity, viz., the diversity of customs and mores that come from people living together in local communities that are relatively isolated from each other; and (3) associational diversity, which might better be described as societal pluriformity, viz., the plethora of communal formations characterizing a mature differentiated society. While liberalism represents a longstanding effort to address all three kinds of diversity, for our purposes we shall examine its relationship to numbers one and three, viz., directional diversity and societal pluriformity. Although these two kinds of diversity are logically distinct, any effort to address one inevitably affects the other as well.

An obvious way in which these two types of diversity intersect can be seen in the often vexing church-state issue. If one is an unbeliever, one is unlikely to accord the gathered church a distinct status apart from the state except as a voluntary association of like-minded believers. In denying the authority of the gathered church institution, the political order formed out of this belief will nearly inevitably subordinate it to the political authority of the state, along with a variety of other voluntary associations, such as the Boy Scouts, the local garden club and little league baseball. This, of course, has profound implications for the protection of religious freedom, which is thought to belong only to individuals, and not to the institutions that have shaped them. A liberal worldview privileging individual rights, a particular manifestation of directional diversity, has effectively denied societal pluriformity, or Mouw and Griffioen’s associational diversity.

Crick believes that ordinary politics requires the tolerance of multiple truth claims. While he is undoubtedly empirically correct in his observation, we must be wary of attaching a normative character to this reality because it may effectively mask the extent to which a particular conception of church-state relations is itself rooted in a religiously-based worldview. And, if so, we will need to be prepared to admit that not all pluralisms are created equal.

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

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By In Culture, Music, Politics

Happy AR Day! a holiday to counter Bastille Day

Twenty-some years ago my sister was in France, studying Gregorian chant with the monks at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesmes. During her time there, the 14th of July rolled around, when the rest of the country celebrates la Fête nationale, better known to us as Bastille Day. But things were quiet in Solesmes and the surrounding countryside. Curious at this lack of merriment, my sister asked why they weren’t joining in the celebrations and was greeted with faces registering shock. In a heavily Catholic region, they would never consider observing a day that marked the start of a godless revolution that wreaked such havoc on the Church, France and the rest of Europe.

There are now 359 days remaining until the next Bastille Day. As we await its occurrence, I would like to propose for that day a counter-holiday to be titled AR Day, “AR” standing for Anti-Revolutionary. After the generation of war and instability set off in 1789 finally ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, many Europeans, especially those still loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ, set about attempting to combat the ideological illusions the Revolution had engendered. This entailed breaking with the modern preoccupation—nay, obsession—with sovereignty and recovering a recognition of the legitimate pluriformity of society.

In any ordinary social setting, people owe allegiance to a variety of overlapping communities with differing internal structures, standards, and purposes. These are sometimes called mediating structures, intermediary communities or, taken collectively, civil society. This reality stands in marked contrast to liberal individualism and such collectivist ideologies as nationalism and socialism, each of which is monistic in its own way—locating a principle of unity in a human agent to which it ascribes sovereignty, or the final say.

Recognizing that the only source of unity in the cosmos is the God who has created and redeemed us in the person of his Son, Christians are freed from the need to locate a unifying source within the cosmos. Thus the institutional church can be itself, living up to its divinely-appointed mandate to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and maintain discipline. The family is free to be the family, nurturing children as they grow to maturity. Marriage is liberated to be itself, free from the stifling constraints of the thin contractarian version now extolled in North America and elsewhere. And, of course, the huge array of schools, labour unions, business enterprises, and voluntary associations have their own proper places, not to be artificially subordinated to an all-embracing state or the imperial self.

This pluriformity is something worth celebrating! It may sound perfectly mundane when described in the way I have here, but the fact that the followers of today’s political illusions find it so threatening indicates that we cannot afford to take it for granted. Here are some suggested readings that highlight this dissenting anti-revolutionary tradition:

  • Johannes Althusius, Politics (1614)
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • Guillaume Groen van Prinster, Unbelief and Revolution (1847)
  • Abraham Kuyper, Our Program (1880)
  • Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)
  • Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951)
  • Yves R. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (1951)
  • Friedrich Julius Stahl, Philosophy of Law: the Doctrine of State and the Principles of State Law (1830)

I could go on and list many more resources, but these will suffice for purposes of our new holiday. I propose that we celebrate it by holding public readings from these and similar works. The food would consist of such anti-revolutionary delicacies as boerenkool met worst, haggis, Brazilian pães de queijo and pamonhas, and, for the sake of all those Byzantine-Rite Calvinists out there, loaves of white bread with taramosalata, Kalamata olives, and cruets of extra virgin (Greek!) olive oil.

Music will consist of mass communal singing of the Psalms, preferably from the Genevan Psalter. Additional music will be provided by (why not?) the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Solesme! Let’s do it!

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