Mar 7, 2014
Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’
Posted on Sep 11, 2009
Wolfe’s book opens with a frontispiece from John Dewey celebrating the deep mutability of human nature. But mutability is itself an anthropocentric Enlightenment principle that stands in sharp contrast to religious conceptions of human nature as fixed and immutable (original sin, Calvinist destiny, for example). It is not man’s power but God’s or Allah’s or Jaweh’s power (or mercy and grace) that determines human fate. Although Wolfe never mentions it, liberalism is grounded in an epistemology that assumes man is born with a tabula rasa, a blank tablet for a mind, on which experience writes its over-determining narrative. By manipulating environmental circumstances (education, prisons, the law) we can change human nature and thus achieve progress and perhaps even perfection (via the “mutability” Dewey celebrates). But religion assumes that man is born with a fixed spirit already carrying messages inscribed by his maker, a creature destined for reunion with the One that is God—either that or for some form of permanent alienation from God (damnation, hell). Unless both liberalism and religion are mere fashion statements, their underlying psychologies and epistemologies will stand in deep tension. For Wolfe, liberalism makes us “master of our own destiny,” but of course in religion God is master, while man is not autonomous but subordinate to God’s laws and commands. Even in Protestantism, which acknowledges human liberty, that liberty is a freedom to choose God (or not). It is not a freedom to fashion our own autonomous nature or do as we please (by the way, Kant’s point too!).
In short, when Wolfe argues that “[ i] n truth, liberalism’s enemy is not religion but religious oppression and its friend is not skepticism but freedom, including religious freedom,” he is engaged in wimpish wishful thinking that eschews what should be a true liberal commitment to resistance to authoritarian institutions and to human mutability, plurality and progress. Raise any of the hard issues—abortion, gay marriage, pacifism, divided loyalties between political and moral commands—and the schism becomes undeniable. The hard issues also make it apparent why the scourges of modern religion from Tom Paine to Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (none of whom Wolfe likes) are so intolerant of religion, even if their own polemics are both extreme and politically counterproductive.
Wolfe would like to believe that because 44 percent of Americans “switch their faith in the course of their lives,” religion is a kind of changing taste that need not be taken too seriously and hence need not come into conflict with political and civic choices. “Because religion has made its accommodation [with liberalism],” Wolfe concludes, “it is time for liberals to make their accommodation with religion.”
To be sure, one should appreciate Wolfe’s effort to be sympathetic to religion, tradition and (in a section I haven’t discussed) national security concerns. He wants liberals to win elections and does not think they can do so without a more centrist and prudent approach to such issues. After all, this is the centrist outlook that Democrats like theorist William Galston and politician Bill Clinton, vexed by so many lost elections, talked about in the 1980s, the outlook that helped shape the ever-so-moderate, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, and the two-term Clinton presidency the DLC helped fashion.
Yet in the end, on the way to rescuing liberalism from progressivism and accommodating it to nontoxic forms of conservatism, Wolfe and liberals like him have more or less abandoned both the liberal creed and the liberal agenda (hence, William Bennett’s endorsement). Such compromises were what allowed President Clinton to turn against welfare and cozy up to capitalism in the 1996 Federal Communications Act, and are what may permit President Obama today to turn away from the public (government) option in his health insurance plan. The formula is simple enough: Liberal electoral victories trump liberal principles. But the long-term result is a liberalism more sympathetic to conservatism than to progressivism, more attuned to religion than to skepticism, more inclined to capitalism than to equality, more sensitive to the claims of elitism (see John Stuart Mill) than to the claims of populism. Such a liberalism is all too comfortable with power, property and nongovernmental kinds of authority, whether religious or market, and all too distant from its own origins in resisting illegitimate power. Yet I suspect the truth is precisely what it was 250 years ago when Rousseau insisted in the “Social Contract” that liberty’s prospects lay with and not against equality, justice and democracy: namely, that if liberalism is to have a future today, it will first of all have to recognize its radicalism and make its peace with democracy.
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