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A liberal tragedy

By cutting itself off from its Christian roots, liberalism has become shrill and dogmatic

By Edward Skidelsky   January 2002

Liberalism is facing a crisis. This judgment may seem extreme, given the current confidence of liberal rhetoric. Back in 1988, many liberals felt inhibited from condemning the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for fear of displaying “cultural imperialism.” Who has felt any such inhibition in relation to the Taleban? Commentators openly condemn Islam as “anti-progressive.” Such sentiments would have been unprintable 15 years ago. A new consensus has emerged, uniting the bellicosity of the right and the political correctness of the left. It is embodied in Tony Blair.

Yet the recent upsurge of confidence hides a deeper anxiety. We proclaim to the world the values of equality, liberty and toleration, but we have no idea on what authority we proclaim them. The older liberalism had no anxieties on this count. It derived its principles either from Christian tradition or else from the supposed attributes of human nature. Both these sources of justification have fallen into disrepute. Human rights are held to be a universal possession, not the patrimony of Christians. Yet these universal human rights are no longer grounded in a universal human nature. The classical conception of man as a rational animal, separated by an unbridgeable gulf from other animals, is condemned as “speciesism.” The dominant modern theory of human nature is purely biological. It is concerned with those characteristics that we share with animals. It provides no basis for human rights.

Thus rights are no longer deduced, either theologically or philosophically. They are proclaimed. Fiat has replaced argument. Our faith in our own civilisation is without rational foundation. This accounts for the shrill, dogmatic tone of modern liberalism. Classical liberalism, as exemplified by Tocqueville, Mill and Isaiah Berlin, was discursive and philosophical. It tried to engage its opponents, to appeal to their reason and humanity. It could afford the luxury of argument, because it rested securely on an idea of human nature as benevolent and reasonable. Modern liberalism does not rest on any such conception. What is left is a set of legal claims, advanced in peremptory fashion, with no appeal to common reason. Liberalism, in short, is no longer particularly liberal.

One of the best recent attempts to restore to liberalism some of its former depth has been Larry Siedentop’s influential Democracy in Europe. Siedentop argues that if liberalism is to recover its true identity it must acknowledge its roots in Christian faith. Christianity proclaims that the individual is more than whatever social position he happens to occupy, that his relationship with God constitutes a “primary” identity in contrast to other “secondary” identities: “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian… but Christ is all, and in all.” All existing social relations are thus open to criticism; none is ultimate. Siedentop sees this principle working itself out in European history, undermining the moral foundations first of slavery and then of serfdom. Christianity endowed Europe with “a kind of constitution, a sense of the limits of the legitimate use of public power, limits established by moral rights.”

Yet if liberalism is the inheritor of Christianity, why is it so reluctant to acknowledge its debt? Why have the liberal movements of the last 200 years been secular in inspiration? Siedentop regards the separation of liberalism from Christianity as an unfortunate accident. The church-particularly the Catholic church-became identified with “the stratified society based on privilege.” It thereby violated its own principle of “equal liberty.” Henceforth this principle took a secular form.

Yet the estrangement of liberalism from Christianity was surely more than an accident. It followed an inexorable logic. The universalism of the Christian proclamation had to burst the bounds of Christian doctrine and ritual. Christianity, to be true to itself, had to transcend itself. No one saw this with greater clarity than the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Just as Christianity had transcended the exclusivity of Judaism, opening up salvation to Jew and gentile alike, so it must now, argued Bonhoeffer, transcend its own exclusivity. Bonhoeffer saw that the church had not risen to the challenge of the age. In its confrontation with totalitarianism, it had sacrificed the universal cause of humanity to the preservation of its privileges. It became nothing more than one corporation among others. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. He died, appropriately, not as a Christian martyr but as a political dissident.

Christianity’s fate, then, is to abolish itself, to dissolve into liberalism. But is this fate happy or tragic? And can liberalism itself survive, once severed from its Christian roots? Does it have an independent source of life, or is it living off its religious inheritance? Siedentop himself is optimistic. Liberalism, he writes, is a “purged” form of Christianity, preserving the ethical content of Christianity while discarding its mythological form. Christianity is a preliminary, an imperfect first shot at liberal constitutionalism. It was Hegel who first defended Christianity as a prototype of the constitutional state. Writing after the horrors of Jacobinism, his aim was to make liberals conscious of their debt to the past, thereby encouraging a more peaceful transition from tradition to modernity. Siedentop’s aim is similar. Like Hegel, he is in no doubt that religion belongs to the infancy of the human race.

But these theories betray a shallow conception of religion. Liberalism is not the essence or fulfilment of Christianity; it is its shadow. It substitutes for the concrete life of faith a set of abstract formulae. It is a sketch, an outline, a pr?cis of religion. If Christianity is poetry, then liberalism is the prose translation. Christianity is first and foremost a narrative. It tells the story of man’s fall, his bondage to sin and the law, his redemption from sin and the law and his restoration to grace. This narrative is no mere allegory; it is the primary reality of our lives. Liberalism extracts from this narrative a few catchphrases-“freedom,” “dignity,” “equality”-and sets them up as ultimate principles. These phrases have become a secular litany; they are incanted endlessly at international summits. But detached from the context which once gave them meaning, they appear increasingly arbitrary.

A good example of this is the anti-racism movement of recent years. The original US civil-rights movement was religious in inspiration; it drew its strength from the Christian vision of human brotherhood. But its modern inheritor is resoundingly secular. It is no longer inspired by a positive vision of humanity, but-as the designation “anti-racism” suggests-by the merely negative goal of “eliminating discrimination.” Yet in the absence of any positive ideal, the justification for this negative goal is no longer clear. Human equality is a religious, or at least a metaphysical proposition. Natural science offers it no unambiguous support. Even if the races are equal in intelligence-and it is not clear that they are-this is no more than a biological fact. It carries no implications for moral or civic equality.

Because our civilisation no longer rests on a positive ideal, it can define itself only negatively. This accounts for the increasing prominence of the holocaust in political rhetoric. Holocaust memorials and remembrance days are the rites of a new state religion. Like all state religions, it aims to create unity. But we are joined, not in the worship of an ultimate good, but in the execration of an ultimate evil.

The cult of the holocaust signifies the negative character of our civilisation. Liberal freedom has become nothing more than “freedom from…” tradition, from authority, from Nazism. But in the absence of any positive ideal to support it, the liberal proclamation of individual freedom looks increasingly like a mere licence to selfishness. That is often how it seems to members of other cultures; this is what they mean by the “decadence” of the west. Religious freedom, by contrast, is what Berlin termed “positive freedom.” It denotes not only absence of constraint but a positive ideal of holiness. The ultimate Christian ideal is not freedom but love. Without love, freedom is empty self-assertion. If the liberal ideal of freedom is to represent something more than licence, then it must recover its original religious meaning.

But how? Christianity had to secularise itself in obedience to its own fundamental principle of universality. Today, this moral imperative has been joined by practical considerations. With non-Christian minorities living within their borders, western states can hardly return to Christian confession. In a world divided by religious strife, only a secular form of liberalism can underpin international order.

Thus the fate of liberalism is-in the precise sense the word-tragic. A tragic fate is one that proceeds not from external and accidental causes, but according to an inexorable internal logic. This is precisely the situation of liberalism. It must sever itself from its historical roots in Christianity, yet in doing so it severs itself from the source of its own life. Liberalism must follow a course that leads directly to its own atrophy. It must extirpate itself.

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