The Book Club

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat reviewed: Liberalism and Christianity.

Liberalism is stuck halfway between heaven and earth.

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey. Deisis mosaic from 1280.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


This has been a wonderful dialogue, and I’m greatly in your debt—but the touch of pity with which you finished makes me feel as though I should have been slightly more combative!

Your instinct, understandably, is to look at my Christianity and judge it against the standards set by contemporary secular liberalism. So you applaud when the faith seems to provide a warrant for an egalitarian politics. You sigh when it seems insufficiently realistic and compassionate about modern sexual mores. And you favor a chronology of Christian history in which the faith is gradually dragged, by brave and courageous reformers, up from medieval darkness into Enlightenment.

But when I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that. In Bad Religion, I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole. And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals.

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ “render unto Caesar” and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel.

And what’s more, to me, contemporary liberals’ obsession with the supposed backwardness of Christian sexual ethics—an obsession that far outstrips sex’s actual role in the preaching and practice of Christian faith—reflects a subconscious liberal knowledge that Christianity is their theological mother, and they’re its half-rebellious child. You can see in it the child’s characteristic desire to finally overthrow the last bastion of parental authority, joined to a continued desire for the parent’s approval for their choices and beliefs.

Now as I say in the book, I think heresies are immensely important to Christianity. The liberal stress on equality in this life—manifested in your economic egalitarianism, and your outrage at the idea that there might be hierarchies of sexual and romantic desire—was a necessary corrective to institutional Christianity’s unseemly comfort with the hierarchies and cruelties of the ancien regime, and a necessary reminder of the New Testament’s original “neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” radicalism.

But at the same time, liberalism has often depended on its religious roots for its vitality and coherence. That “endowed by their Creator” is pretty important to the Declaration of Independence’s case for inalienable rights. The witness of preachers mattered as much to abolitionism and other 19th-century reform movements as the arguments of intellectuals. The prophetic element in the civil rights movement was more important than all the New York eggheads who supported its policy objectives.

And the more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual “skyhooks,” suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

What I’ve always loved about your writing, Will, is your willingness to probe at the places where secular liberalism is running up against just this problem. You’ve written about the struggles liberals have to figure out why, if abortion is licit, killing a 1-week-old baby is not. You’ve dug into the challenges that the study of intelligence could pose to liberal ideas about human equality. Your writings on sex reflect an acute awareness of the ease with which a liberty unconstrained by any principle higher than human desire can turn into libertinism in a hurry. So as you invite me to meditate on whether, in the end, Christianity can’t follow modern liberalism a little further down its current road, I’d invite you to glance back over your shoulder at the worldview that so many liberals have left behind, and to consider the possibility that for all its strange claims and confounding commandments, it might still provide a better home for humankind than whatever destination our civilization is headed for.