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Conservatives Are Responsible for Liberalism

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Fellow contributor Chase Padusniak identified a tension between "conservatism (especially of the Christian variety in the U.S.) and 'liberalism,'" arguing that it spells "big trouble for American conservatism."

He's right about the tension, but it's not only between conservatism and liberalism. Open society challenges its own internal consistency because it depends on what Popper called "humanitarianism"—respect for human life as intrinsically valuable—and yet it cannot demand this from its citizenry. George Washington famously argued that popular government depends on a virtuous citizenry, which depends on religion—but as Michael Novak explained in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, compelling any citizen to practice either would violate the conscience, which is "inviolable" in the open society. Novak quotes Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s worries that the "boundless freedom" of the open society threatens to erode its own "moral heritage." Padusniak agrees, arguing that "in an entirely free society…people are…likely to turn away from virtue in a Christian sense. Churches might help, but they cannot save an entire society whose fundamental principle is individual freedom."

Solzhenitsyn and Padusniak have hit on a paradox: The Judeo-Christian religious tradition provides the indispensable foundation of liberalism, but many free people are inclined to abandon it. So this freedom troubles us because the Biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself," is the progenitor of humanitarianism and the element of our moral heritage that we can scarcely afford to lose.

Tocqueville applauded the American solution to promoting virtue while remaining free: separating church and state, allowing religion to influence its proper sphere, appealing to hearts and minds rather than wielding raw political power. Correcting "abuses of liberty" with "extreme liberty," the Americans employed the art of association, forming voluntary institutions to propagate religion and shape mores. Padusniak’s thoughts raise the question: Can liberty still correct abuses of liberty? Are we practiced, skilled, habituated enough to make good use of liberty? In an open, teleologically neutral society, it is up to us—the citizens and our institutions—to construct what Novak calls "sacred canop[ies]," addressing the human impulse toward purpose and meaning.

Ironically, the task of preserving the moral-cultural scaffolding on which liberalism is built falls to conservatives, employing the art of liberty to counter abuses of liberty and promote civic virtue.

I actually see some hopeful signs for anyone interested in the task:

  • Recent gains for the pro-life movement at the state-level. Padusniak is worried religious institutions won't be able to challenge the "almost absolute vision of freedom" that encourages abuses of liberty, but here's an area where religious institutions have been able to retain influence. There is even evidence that more Americans want religious institutions to exercise greater influence in political life. Perhaps an even more beautiful use of the art of liberty is the work of institutions like Lifeline Pregnancy Care.
  • Growing interest in localism and civic engagement. This started on the left, but right-leaning folks are catching on. Check out the Davenport Institute (full disclosure, I'm employed there; follow us @DavenportInst!), The American Conservative’s New Urbanism section, and this collection of essays published last year, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Pepperdine Professor Ted McAllister. Local civic engagement can facilitate use of the art of liberty in a tangible way, potentially renewing the vitality of American liberty and civic virtue, maybe for both liberals and conservatives.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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