Peter Leithart On Political Liberalism
Leithart seems to be backing up and re-checking his brash comments about “liberalism” in Against Christianity (the book that is “for Constantine”). He now writes:
Christopher Insole wants theologians who attack “liberalism” to be more careful about what they’re attacking. He favorably cites Robert Song, who distinguishes the constitutional liberalism of Locke and Kant from the laissez-faire liberalism of Hayek from the welfare liberalism of Hobhouse.
Fair enough. [good] But Insole’s own definition of liberalism seems to be vulnerable to precisely the theological criticisms that Song and Oliver O’Donovan, among others, attack: “by ‘political liberalism’ I mean the conviction that politics is ordered to peaceful coexistence (the absence of conflict), and the preservation of liberties of the individual within a pluralistic and tolerant framework, rather than by a search for truth (religious or otherwise), perfection and unity. The crucial ambition of this sort of ‘political liberalism’ is a refusal to allow public power to enforce on society a substantial and comprehensive conception of the good; driven as it is by its central passion for the liberties of individuals over and above the enthusiasms of other individuals and collectivities.”
Isn’t this privileging of individual liberties a “substantial . . . conception of the good”? And doesn’t the non-pursuit of truth, perfection and unity imply a pursuit of something else – of tolerance and pluralism as the highest political aims? As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the story of no final stories is still a story; and a political order dedicated to ensuring tolerance is still a political order dedicated to a version of what is “good” for political order.
I would say No, this is not the privileging of individual liberties as a “substantial conception of the good.” Rather, this is more like political institutions performing their common-sense purpose. The literature I am familiar with proposes a form of practical political liberalism as the conclusion to rejecting notions of “a substantial conception of the good.” Leithart’s close proximity to theonomy (last I spoke to him about this, he confessed a growing distance from Reconstructionism), his peculiar role in Wilson World, and his thesis “for Constantine” (as well as my discussion with him about a man’s submission to a community), makes me wonder if there is an important reason he finds it important to criticize political liberalism without qualification. Is there nothing good about the kind of freedom it affords? The protection it permits to citizens? Is there nothing valuable about these pluralistic roads of Rome for the missional Christian? Isn’t it common sense on the Pauline model that the political powers that protect from harm and punish evil, as did the Roman State, are not in the business of pursuing “truth, unity, and perfection?” The silence on this end of the issue is a bit unsettling. Perhaps Leithart wants Wilson to become a new American Pope. I’m not sure.
I’m not here concluding what future political systems may look like; it just may be that a Christian story will so influence society and state that we have far more expressed from our political institutions than mere protection from harm and the punishment of crime. But it would seem to me that our current system is a nice step in that direction; I just don’t see how the fact that our nation was fully racist until the 1960s does not force a bit more humility for the Christian who wants to “go back,” not only to the 50s, but to the time of the Roman Christian Emperor.