Every parent knows the ominous feeling of watching one’s child transform a mere mistake into a full-blown disaster.
A similar sense of gloom hovers over Helena Rosenblatt’s recent book, The Lost History of Liberalism. Rosenblatt presents her work as a history of those who have called themselves liberal through the centuries. More accurately described, however, it is her attempt to redefine liberalism’s founding in order to rescue it from the worrisome future toward which it seems to be headed. Liberalism was founded on commitments to duty, patriotism, self-sacrifice, and the other virtues that guide humanity’s use of freedom, she notes. But contemporary liberals are trading their birthright for an untenable pottage of rights talk and anarchic freedom that lacks solid grounding.
Rosenblatt foresees disaster at the end of that path, and her book is a call from within the liberal tradition to turn back. That alone is worth a cheer.
Several books have been published lately about the history and current state of liberal modernity. But how does one make sense of a term—“liberal”—so amorphous that it can describe figures as different as Adam Smith, Woodrow Wilson, and Nancy Pelosi? Rosenblatt defines the word “liberal” more precisely by tracing its career: from the earliest moral uses in classical texts; to its political-economic turn in post-revolutionary France, Spain, and Germany; and then finally to its contemporary meaning in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Rosenblatt is to be commended for taking seriously the different ways the word liberal has been used. Still, such an exercise is of limited value. It necessarily overlooks ideas, people, and movements that are philosophically related to liberalism if they happened not to describe themselves or their beliefs as “liberal.” For example, John Locke did not identify as a “liberal” in the political sense of the word. But he defended religious tolerance, which is a hallmark of political liberalism. It is a mistake to exclude Locke from a history of liberalism simply because he did not use the term.
Rosenblatt’s central claim, however, is that the word “liberalism” has a strong historical connection to moral virtue. Although virtue has fallen into obscurity in contemporary liberalism, Rosenblatt argues that it needs to be recovered because it is essential to the liberal project.
The History of “Liberalism” and Civic Virtue
This argument is a partial success. Rosenblatt does convincingly demonstrate that one strand of liberalism emerged as a middle way between revanchist royalists and the radical democrats in the period immediately following the French Revolution. The seminal figures of this variety of liberalism (such as Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël) believed that civic virtue was necessary to sustain republican (or constitutional monarchist) forms of government.
Mostly, though, the argument is a failure. Rosenblatt does not take herself to be writing the history of one strand of liberalism, but of liberalism tout court. She claims that the word’s first political (rather than moral) uses were not, as often assumed, from the anglophone world we usually associate with liberalism. The reader is told that British and Scottish thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill were added to the history of liberalism after the fact, while France and Germany were liberalism’s true source. Furthermore, she dates the rise of liberalism rather late: “[I]t is important to know that no one spoke of liberalism during the eighteenth century. The word and concept had not yet been conceived,” Rosenblatt says.
Both claims, which shape the whole argument of the book, are mistaken. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, Rosenblatt’s insistence that one may call a thinker “liberal” only if he uses that term to describe his political views, her timeline is not accurate. Using computer-aided textual analysis, Daniel B. Klein demonstrates that the turn in the use of the word “liberalism” (from describing a moral virtue to describing a political or economic position) occurred not around 1800 on the continent, as Roseblatt claims, but over thirty years earlier in Scotland. Klein’s revelation inverts Rosenblatt’s chronology: the continental thinkers were significantly later than England and Scotland in making the turn from liberalism as moral virtue to liberalism as political program. The liberalism of Smith and Locke is not, therefore, an incongruous imposition on a primarily French and German phenomenon. It is the very origin of the phenomenon.
These errors aside, the lost history Rosenblatt recovers remains valuable. First, her detailed accounts of the influence of particular liberal figures add nuance to our understanding of the meaning of liberalism, reinforcing the idea that it is plural, not monolithic. A single word arose in different times and places to refer to related but distinct moral, religious, political, and economic projects.
Continental liberals believed that republican self-rule required the people to be educated in moral and civic virtue. In fact, at least in the early years, they seem to have agreed on little else. For many years, liberalism in France and Germany was a grab bag of political projects and policies. Still, these liberals always shared a commitment to republican forms of government founded on a civic virtue inculcated in the populace. They distrusted or even opposed pure democracy as little more than mob rule (although they recognized, especially thanks to Tocqueville, the inevitability of democracy’s rise). Only virtuous citizens, they reasoned, could navigate between the extremes of reactionary royalism and radical democratic revolution. A combination of democratic institutions with the more aristocratic emphasis on virtue would ennoble democracy and prevent the return of the exhausted ancien régime.
But how are citizens to be fitted with the virtue that republican government requires? This question brings us to the second important contribution of this book, and its most curious feature. Liberals concluded that the answer to this question was religion—Christianity, to be specific. Not the Christianity of the Catholic Church, which liberals regarded as the problem; and not the Christianity of orthodox Protestants, either: they, too, had often sided against democratic forces during the French Revolution. Early liberals needed a new theology for the new man at the dawn of a new age.
Here it is worth pausing to note what happened. Titanic figures in liberalism’s history, such as Benjamin Constant, explicitly asserted that liberal forms of government would stand or fall on the success of religion’s moralizing force. For liberalism, religion became good because of its usefulness for politics and not because of its truth. Liberalism instrumentalized religion, subverting it to “higher” political purposes.
Liberalism’s Colonization of Christianity
Rosenblatt’s discernment of this remarkable turn may be the most valuable contribution of the book, yet she does not emphasize it. In fact, she discusses liberalism’s treatment of religion in bits and pieces, scattered throughout the text for the reader to assemble for herself. The upshot of these disconnected observations is that one of liberalism’s greatest successes was to domesticate Christianity, very cleverly, to make it safe for liberal politics. Instead of violently confronting Christian believers, or co-opting Christian figures (tactics that had been tried throughout history by Roman emperors, medieval kings, Enlightenment democrats, and countless others), liberalism colonized Christianity itself.
Make no mistake: many liberals certainly fought publicly to set politics over religion, as when they supported the anti-liberal Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. But one group of liberals deliberately set out to remake Christianity from within by developing a radical, new theology, new interpretations of scripture, new publications, and new churches. They succeeded remarkably in gaining adherents. Instead of trying to convert people overnight from Catholicism or orthodox Protestantism to secular humanism and its “pure light of reason” (as French historian Edgar Quinet called it), political liberals used liberal Protestantism as a halfway point from which to pry Christians away from dogma.
In many other respects, liberals were not all that different from previous enemies of Christianity, and particularly of Catholicism. They denounced the pope, the pope denounced them; they plundered or confiscated churches and converted them into temples of reason, and the pope issued bulls and condemnations against them (specifically, against modernism and freemasonry). Liberals passed discriminatory (especially anti-Catholic) laws, such as France’s Ferry Laws, that made education compulsory and secular, or the Blaine amendments in the United States, which were similar. French philosopher Charles Renouvier denounced the Catholic Church as “slave-religion.” So far, nothing new under the sun.
The novelty of the liberal approach was the way it changed the Church from within, via its theology. Today’s young Christians practice what sociologist Christian Smith has described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith whose history stretches back to the French and German thinkers of the early liberal movement. They developed a new method to bring Christianity to heel and shore up liberal politics, simultaneously.
They retained the parts of Christianity that spurred people to improve themselves and inculcate civic virtues, but sheared off the strong doctrinal claims that divided society and relativized the state’s authority. They wanted a religion that fitted their practical, political aims. The German Johann Semler coined the term “liberal theology” in 1774 to describe a way of reading the Bible that persuaded him (and other scholars) that Christianity’s core was moral, not dogmatic. Heinrich Paulus even denied that the New Testament concerned “theological metaphysics” at all and insisted that True Christianity moralized society by keeping up with history’s march. Liberal theology quickly dominated German seminaries and became prominent in both French and German liberal political movements.
Ferdinand Buisson, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who influenced liberal Christianity and education, professed a “faith” devoid of dogmas, miracles, and priests. In his words, society needed “a human church, lay [and] liberal, . . . like a vast Freemasonry out in the open.” The American Theodore Parker advanced the notion that religion should teach self-improvement and moral comportment, not dogma. Auguste Comte is not mentioned in the book, but his “religion of humanity” probably should have been.
Theological liberalism encountered its own set of enemies, especially the neo-orthodox Christian movements that sprang up after the French Revolution. Socialists, too, criticized liberal theology for being individualistic, moralistic, overly intellectual, and not sufficiently focused on economics. And yet, liberals successfully shaped the political imagination of many western countries by accommodating democracy and spreading their theology. It is difficult to understate how influential liberal theology was, for a time, throughout the Western Church, in both Protestantism and Catholicism.
The Fall of Liberal Theology
In our own day, though, the wheel of fortune has turned again, and now the bastions of liberal theology have fallen. Mainline Protestant churches are emptying rapidly; it is hard to imagine that Unitarianism was once a vibrant, international religious movement. Within the Catholic Church, the parishes and regions that embrace liberal theology the most are the most likely to be losing members and moral authority. In 2018 in France, the home of liberal Christianity, 60 percent of Catholic dioceses failed to ordain a single priest or deacon. In Europe more generally, whatever people do on Sunday, they don’t go to church. Neither is the United States immune: “nones” (those who profess atheism, agnosticism, or “no religion in particular”) are a fast-growing group.
What was designed as a political-theological project to modernize religion and moderate democratic politics has proven to be exceedingly fragile. The liberal political settlement is rapidly fraying, and its theological component has collapsed.
One can easily sympathize with Rosenblatt’s anxiety over the future of the liberal project, which once seemed so promising. However, because she overlooks the most important implications of her work, she misdiagnoses the root cause of the failure of liberalism: its rejection of the kind of Christianity on which it depends. From its earliest days, some of its strongest proponents have recognized that liberalism on its own lacks the resources to form the kind of citizens it requires. With the waning of liberal Protestantism, western countries increasingly find themselves once more in need of help to produce virtuous citizens fit for republican self-rule. Now, more than ever, liberal societies need a vibrant, orthodox Christianity—even, or perhaps especially, one that is not tame.