Liberalism: That (Somewhat) Old Time Religion

My recent post quoting Chesterton raised some eyebrows at CHA. Chesterton, being Roman Catholic, viewed human freedom rather differently than Protestants. To me that goes without saying, so I didn’t say it. Some readers thought that maybe I should have. As I tried to say something about Protestants and Chesterton, I realized that my perspective on Protestantism is almost certainly far different than most of my Protestant readers. This has led to a series of essays. The first is about John Calvin and the Renaissance, and the conservative tradition which Calvin critiqued, argued with, and finally rejected. It is in that broad context that I will “say something” about Chesterton, Calvin, and human freedom.

But this essay raises the question of what the words “conservative” and “liberal” mean in the post-Enlightenment world. I have come to realize that both American politics and Protestantism are foundationally and inherently liberal endeavors. So in the second essay I ask the question, “Is conserving the liberal beliefs and attitudes from the past a species of conservatism or liberalism?” I believe those who seek to conserve a fundamentally liberal endeavor remain liberals. This means that so-called conservative or evangelical denominations (such as the Presbyterian Church in America or the Bible Church) are not classically conservative at all; they just want to remain classically liberal rather than become progressively liberal.

Accusing the Bible Church of liberalism … well, those are fighting words. So in the third essay I outline four marks of the Protestant Church that identify it as part of the Classical Liberal tradition. Classical Liberalism is usually associated with the intellectual children of Thomas Hobbes and his social contract theory. The conservative reactions within Protestantism (and American politics for that matter) don’t seek to overthrow this Classical Liberal tradition; rather they seek to return to a more primitive form of that Liberalism. These conservative Protestants, therefore, remain liberal. They’re just not progressively liberal.

And somewhere along the line in these essays I a make a confession that I’ll reiterate here: I probably ought to be a conservative, but in my heart of hearts I am a Liberal individualist (probably even a Hobbesian Liberal Individualist). I don’t believe that squares very well with my Christian faith, but it makes me a good American, by golly! Someday maybe I’ll grow out of it. But for now, I find these essays to be rather disconcerting.