America became the model liberal nation, and, after England, the exemplar of liberalism to the world.
- Ralph Raico, describing America after the Revolutionary War
It didn’t last long, but it was true for a time.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
No, this isn’t a post about the excellence of the US Constitution, as I side much more with Lysander Spooner on this:
But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.
In fact, a moral and religious people require little of what the US Constitution, or any constitution, has to offer. A moral and religious people would live in accord with the natural law – and, for those Christians who don’t like those words, the Ten Commandments. In those commandments, one finds enough governance to keep the peace, enjoy property, and respect life.
So, what is this post about? It's a look at the post-liberal West. World War One certainly was the suicide of the West, as described by Jacques Barzun. Whatever classical liberalism that existed prior to the war was murdered in the war. For the balance of the twentieth century, the West has been living on the fumes of that previous order.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes why, in his 1983 Templeton Address:
…if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.” The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.
Somewhere between the reaction to September 11 and the reaction to covid, the last remaining fumes of classical liberalism all disappeared. We now speak openly of a post-liberal time. At the same time, we speak openly of a meaning crisis. The roots of both are the same; the solution to both is the same.
Jonathan Leeman has written A New Christian Authoritarianism? In this, he challenges the notions of those like Doug Wilson and others – those he labels as ““general-equity theonomist,” “Christian nationalist” “magisterial Protestant,” “Roman Catholic integralist,” or, in legal circles, “common good constitutionalist….””
Such as these point to the failure of liberalism – something many people are now speaking to, in what is certainly a post-liberal time. Leeman summarizes this view as follows:
The middle ground of classical liberalism’s restrained approach to governmental power has proven inadequate for maintaining a moral, religious, and just society. The liberal DNA of the American Experiment, following secular Jeffersonian and Madisonian trajectories, has betrayed us.
And in this summary – setting aside if it is an accurate portrayal of those about whom Leeman is writing – one can see the flaw in the entire issue, the flaw for any who view that the failure (or solution) is primarily to be found in classical liberalism.
Certainly, classical liberalism offered a door through which such a failure could walk; it has no means by which to defend this door. Classical liberalism wasn’t designed to guard this door – and it was the guards of this door that allowed for the failure of the promise of classical liberalism.
And for this, go back to the quote by John Adams. In whose hands was the responsibility of training up a moral and religious people? Answer that question, and one will understand where the fault lies – why we are in this post-liberal society – clown world, as Wilson rightly describes it.
Further describing those like Wilson, Leeman offers:
They believe the government should possess authority over religion and establishments of religion in a manner that liberalism does not, or at least does not intend to.
Again, my intent is not to examine if Leeman’s portrayal of Wilson’s views is accurate. At least to the extent I understand Wilson’s views (I cannot speak to the views of others identified by Leeman), there seems to be a bit of knocking down a strawman. However, Wilson has shared that Leeman and he have exchanged on the topic, so…maybe not. Again, I will stay out of this aspect of Leeman’s commentary.
Instead, I will point to the fault of this idea (in agreement with Leeman) – that government is somehow called to possess authority over religion. It is certainly the model of the medieval Eastern Church; it is a model which I have reviewed via the work of John Strickland (thirty-six posts, start from the oldest if you wish to work through this) and have suggested is doomed to fail.
Leeman also points to why such a model is faulty. It is a question of spheres: in which sphere does government have authority, and in which sphere does the Church have authority? He sees these as two different spheres as do I. However, the question is: which drives – or should drive – the other?
Politics is downstream of culture. And in this, the cause of the failure of liberalism will be found. It is the Church (broadly speaking) that has failed in its role of developing and sustaining a moral and religious people.
…they [these post-liberal Christian nationalists] believe that God intends for the governments of the nations to enforce not just the horizontally directed second table of the Ten Commandments (commandments 5 to 10), but also the vertically directed first table (commandments 1 to 4).
To the extent this is true of their beliefs, I side with Leeman. Well, mostly. Yes, it is the Church to teach the first table; it is the government’s role to enforce (most of) the second table. But whose role is it to teach the second table – to ensure we have a moral and religious society? Of course, this falls on the Church.
It is like the difference of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would want done to you) and the Silver Rule (don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you). The Church is to teach the former – natural law ethic; the government punishes the latter (violations of natural rights). But the Church must also teach the latter.
For those who haven’t followed my work on differentiating these two concepts (and many confuse the words), I summarize: natural law describes ethical behavior; natural rights are those rights, that if violated, allow for physical self-defense and / or punishment by government actors.
Natural law compels me to love my neighbor; but my neighbor has no natural right to my being so compelled to love him. I am required by natural law to love my neighbor, but my neighbor isn’t the one who has a claim on me if I fail at this requirement. My failure is between me and God – and it is the Church that has God’s authority in such matters.
Thomas Aquinas sums it up this way, demonstrating that not all violations of natural law are to be forbidden by human law; only those that violate another’s natural rights:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Emphasis added)
Leeman notes that arguments in support of natural law have grown in Christian circles in proportion to the society that has openly defied natural law – in other words, as a reaction to alphabetism.
The topic of natural law and natural rights are confused even in this piece by Leeman. He notes that the apostles Peter and Paul write that government is to punish the bad and reward the good. But which “bad” is to be punished? Does it include the first table of the Decalogue? He writes:
[Brad] Littlejohn says the natural law comprises that subset. Yet why that assumption? What’s the basis for it? Scripture doesn’t say that’s the case. … Furthermore, doesn’t the natural law apply to the desires and worship of our hearts?
Again, I won’t comment on if Littlejohn actually wrote this. But the subset of bads to be punished are those that violate natural rights, not those that violate natural law. The Good Samaritan obeyed natural law when he showed charity; had he not shown charity, he would not have been punished by the government as the injured man had no natural right in the Samaritan’s charity.
The adulterer was told to go and sin no more by Jesus; He did not command the physical punishment of stoning. She violated natural law, but did not violate another’s natural right.
Leeman sees a point to the arguments made by these post-liberal Christians:
…from time to time, American Christians will forget about the right/wrong biblical framework for public morality and default entirely to the free/unfree liberal framework.
How often are the topics of sin and hell mentioned: in a sermon, in the public square, when discussing what tolerance and Christian love mean?
What’s the problem with that? It leads Christians to morally abdicate from the public square. They become unwilling to make any moral impositions on non-believers whatsoever. It’s as if their brains become so trained in the moral logic of liberalism, they become unable to apply any other moral logic than “freedom first.”
Which comes first: liberty, or the one religion that is the foundation for the liberty we enjoy? Confusing the order has contributed greatly to the clown world we now live in. And for this, those like Wilson and Leeman are trying to find a way through.
It is valuable that the dialogue is moving in this direction – recognizing that natural law plays a role, working to clarify the different jurisdictions of Church and state. But it seems to be moving at an almost glacial pace, and much of the discussion remains confused.
Natural law vs. natural rights: even some of the most distinguished scholars on these topics get these two concepts confused. Go back and read Aquinas; he resolved this issue a thousand years ago, and Jesus did more than a thousand years before that.
For the state: limit your actions to punishing violations of natural rights: violation against my person and property. This instead of being the greatest violator of my natural rights.
For the Church (and Christian-affiliated universities): create a moral and religious people. Don’t shy away from teaching natural law as an ethic; don’t shy away from incorporating sin and hell when discussing the meaning of Christian love.
This is how, and the only way how, clown world can be turned before catastrophe. Otherwise, it will certainly be turned after catastrophe.