“Liberalism” is a word with many meanings, some compatible with Christianity, some arguably demanded by it. In its original sense, to be liberal is to exemplify the virtue of liberality, as in broadmindedness or generosity of spirit. More typically, in the United States, liberalism refers to left-wing political views, though “classical” liberalism references a relatively gentle variant of libertarianism.
In his new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, however, eminent political scientist Francis Fukuyama sets out to defend liberalism in what may be its deepest sense: the focus on freedom as the highest political good that unites the mainstream American left and right.
Both major political parties, and most American Christians, have embraced this liberal perspective. Republicans tend to seek so-called “negative liberty,” ensuring that the state leaves individuals alone, while Democrats tend to seek “positive liberty,” or state empowerment of the individual. Republicans emphasize economic freedom, while Democrats emphasize sexual freedom. Fukuyama’s treatment reveals, however, why the liberalism at the heart of both approaches is deeply at odds with the Christian political tradition.
Fukuyama opens with a pair of definitions that seem innocuous enough. He calls liberalism a doctrine advocating legal limitations on government and institutional protections for individual rights. In his view, all variants of liberalism 1) favor the individual over the collective, 2) recognize humans as morally equal, 3) emphasize human unity over cultural diversity, and 4) are optimistic about the improvability of the social world.
Chapter 1 lays out three overarching arguments for liberal ideology. First, liberalism allows diverse populations to coexist in society without descending into infighting. If limitations on government take deeply divisive moral and religious questions off the table, the stakes of politics are lowered and the odds of violence decrease. Second, a person’s ability to freely make her own life choices is the foundation of her human dignity. Individual rights safeguarding autonomy are thus a moral imperative. Finally, liberalism is good for the economy.
As its title suggests, much of Liberalism and Its Discontents is devoted to fielding criticisms of liberalism. Chapters 2 and 3 suggest that the last 50 years of US politics illustrate the perils of taking a liberal distrust of government intervention in markets to an unhealthy extreme. The doctrine itself is correct, Fukuyama maintains, but right-wing liberals failed to acknowledge the necessity of state regulation to protect human goods beyond simple material prosperity and to mitigate the harm free trade can inflict on individuals.
Similarly, in chapters 4 and 5, Fukuyama argues that left-wing liberals have taken a healthy focus on individual autonomy and stretched it into an unhealthy obsession. Whereas a sensible early liberalism encouraged tolerance for diverse concepts of the ultimate good, contemporary left-wing variants sometimes erode any ability to make judgments about moral character. But some virtues, like thoughtfulness and openness to self-improvement, are necessary even to maintain liberal society. Fukuyama also acknowledges left-wing complaints that liberalism’s emphasis on constitutionalism makes rectifying harms to women and minorities slow and painful.
Fukuyama’s responsive strategy is consistent: He embraces critiques of right- and left-wing liberal excesses, but notes that these excesses don’t discredit liberalism itself. Likewise, he acknowledges the procedural slowness of liberal constitutionalism, but argues that its benefits outweigh its costs.
There is substantial good to be found in Fukuyama’s work. His call for moderation as a political value should be welcome in an era when a disturbing number of Americans are being drawn to extremes. His ability to acknowledge the value of markets or the impact of race without turning either into an obsession is key to this temperate outlook. Also welcome is his acknowledgment that moral character has implications for society, making it at least somewhat a matter of legitimate state interest.
The last-mentioned strength, however, hints at the fundamental problem with Fukuyama’s work for Christians: The liberalism he defends, by its essential nature, forbids the state from seeking the holistic good of the governed. The purpose of government, for liberals, is freedom, not virtue. Its goal is empowering individuals to achieve whatever they autonomously choose to be their good, not to foster real human excellence.
At the root of Fukuyama’s first and second arguments for liberalism is the famous dictum that the right is prior to the good. That is, the question of how government should treat individuals is purely a question of justice, and the answer shouldn’t favor any particular religious, moral, or philosophical viewpoint.
Despite moderating this aspect of liberalism, as described above, Fukuyama is not shy about spelling out its implications. “The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism,” he writes, “is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state.” Moral commitments “need to be observed in private life and not imposed on other people.”
Liberalism therefore forbids government from “interfering” to foster the moral and spiritual health of the governed. “Liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics,” writes Fukuyama, “not as a means of seeking the good life as defined by religion, but rather as a way of ensuring life itself, that is, peace and security.” Rulers must provide material security and empower individuals to achieve whatever they define as their good. They must not attempt to nudge their citizens in the right direction.
This approach is fundamentally at odds with the Christian tradition, in which the purpose of governance is to foster the holistic—and real—good of the ruled. As Paul puts it, Christians are to foreswear vengeance precisely because rulers exist to carry out (the real) God’s wrath on (real) evildoing. “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good,” according to Romans 13:4. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” As Thomas Aquinas would theorize centuries later, governance exists not only to protect people from one another, but also to habituate the governed to goodness: The “law, even by punishing, leads men on to being good.”
By making it somewhat more difficult to obtain pornography, for instance, or by withholding a firearm from a potentially suicidal youth, Christian governance can nudge a community in the direction of spiritual health. Christians who instead embrace liberalism’s moral agnosticism, in either its left- or right-wing forms, abdicate their duty to love those around them by seeking their good, in governance as in all of life.
Fukuyama’s response to this line of reasoning is to dismiss Christian governance as impracticable given the fact of cultural and religious diversity. Any attempt to impose Christianity would require an ugly authoritarianism, he writes, because “restoring a shared moral horizon defined by religious belief is a practical non-starter.” Consequently, he argues, channeling Winston Churchill’s famous quip about democracy, “liberalism is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
This response, however, is literally incoherent. Liberalism is not a form of government, but an ideology. Should Christians adopt that ideology and abandon our duty to follow the Second Great Commandment in politics, simply because others are not convinced of Christianity’s truth? Not remotely. Christian theorists have always cautioned against heavy-handed use of political power, which is more likely to do harm than good. That is sound prudential advice. But for Christians to give up the goal of using politics to foster the moral and spiritual health of our communities in principle is to deliberately violate our duty to our highest sovereign.
The surface-level difference between liberal and Christian politics may in fact be quite subtle, but it is deeply important. Christian governance in the US does not look like Fukuyama’s nightmare of a fascist Christian state. It does not look like abandoning constitutionalism or toleration. It looks like Christian citizens going about the ordinary business of politics—but accounting for the moral and spiritual impact of their actions as they reason about policies and candidates.
Fukuyama is right to note a stirring Christian discontent with the liberalism embraced by both major US political parties, but wrong to fear it. Liberalism demands that rulers foster the individual’s ability to seek a personalized conception of the good. Christianity demands that rulers, gently and cautiously, foster that individual’s good as it really is.
Jonathan Ashbach is assistant professor of politics at Oklahoma Baptist University. His work has appeared in scholarly journals and popular publications from Philosophia Christi to Patheos.