Classical Liberalism Keeps Politics Downstream

As is often the case, my discussion with Pastor Douglas Wilson on classical liberalism contra post-liberalism, subset of the dispute between Sohrab Ahmari and David French presently rankling conservatism, exhibits greater agreement on substance than might have initially appeared. Simultaneously, the issues on which dispute remains have become clearer.

As far as I can tell, Pastor Wilson and I share an objective: a global Christian culture. We disagree (partly) about how to get there. As a long-time, unembarrassed classical liberal, I believe politics is downstream from culture. Pastor Wilson, along with many post-liberal conservatives,[1] believes that the culture has so eroded that politics needs to get upstream, and fast.

This series of quotes asserts what he believes to be the actual difference between us:

If a concern for individual liberty and for religious liberty was fruit that grew on the tree of an informal Christian consensus, then do we not need to maintain that informal Christian consensus (at a minimum) in order to keep the fruit? And you cannot maintain such a consensus if you insist on diluting it….

[T]here is a difference between officially recognizing the Christian faith as the foundation of everything you are doing, on the one hand, and establishing a specific denomination as the recipient of tax largess on the other. I don’t want an official denomination of Christians. I do want the Constitution to acknowledge that Jesus rose from the dead. This is the heart and soul of my mere Christendom project…

And we finally come to what I guess might be my only real disagreement with Andrew. He distinguishes between a structural pluralism and substantive pluralism. He rejects the latter, rightly, as being confused and relativistic. But he says this: “Consistent Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other. We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism.”

Now in order to go with this, a consistent theonomic Christian would have to say that “because Jesus rose from the dead, we should do what He says. And what He says to do is to adopt a structural pluralism to guide us as we order our civic affairs. Oh, and one other thing. Don’t mention my name to anyone.” It is like Jesus healing the blind men in Matthew 9, when He told them to tell no one who did this.

And so, I would raise a test case for the structural pluralists. If Christianity and Islam are on all fours together, not to mention the secular unbelievers, what should our marriage laws look like? This is really not an irrelevant question, is it? Christian teaching is soundly monogamous. The Koran says that a man can have up to four wives.

What kind of guidance does structural pluralism give on the question of polygamy once the informal protections of a widely shared Christianity are eroding? (emphasis supplied)

Pastor Douglas Wilson

What I take Pastor Wilson to be arguing is this (I paraphrase his points in bold print):

If structural pluralism is correct, it is correct only because it is rooted in Christianity. Pastor Wilson and I agree.

It was unnecessary for the Founders to recognize Christianity officially, on the simple grounds that they could assume a culturally Christian consensus.  We agree again.

It is no longer sufficient not to officially recognize Christianity, since that historic Christian consensus has eroded. Here we disagree.

If the true variable in this equation is not the official recognition of Christianity, but the actual national worldview consensus (Christian, which we once had, versus secular/pagan, which we have now), officially recognizing Christianity today would be just as futile as it was unnecessary to recognize it at the Founding.

Ironically, an officially recognized Christianity in the near future would presuppose the presence of a new Christian consensus or, at least, a significant Christian minority. But if we had that, we wouldn’t need the official recognition any more than the Founders did. If everybody knows the culture is basically Christian, you don’t need to shout that it is, any more than Pastor Wilson’s church needs to put on its marquee, “This Is an Officially Christian Church.” And if we lack a Christian consensus or large minority in the nation, as we do today, no amount of official recognition in the world would make any substantive difference. The Christian Democratic Union, prominent center-right political party in Germany, is not more Christian because it claims to be. If they were to drop Christian from the name, but subsequently espouse Christian principles, the CDP would be more truly, though not titularly, Christian.

Potential Objections

This is not an argument that important national norms need not be written down. Of course, classically liberal societies need, and demand, written constitutions and laws. The official federal recognition of Christianity is of another order entirely, however. To borrow and tweak the language of Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, the Christian presuppositions are the conditions under which classical liberalism can happen at all. They are not and never claimed to be the result of classical liberalism.

Nor is this an argument against the formal recognition of Christianity. My own life and the Center for Cultural Leadership are devoted to creating a new Christian culture. If more people, families, and institutions publicly confess Jesus is Lord, you’ll get no complaint from me. One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord; and the sooner, the better.

But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that a national confession of Christianity makes any difference whatsoever as long as the culture is anti-Christian.

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Andrew’s advocacy of classical liberalism — notably his suggestion that structural pluralism, that is, procedural neutrality, or a level political playing field — can perhaps be reduced to falsity[2] by considering the issue of legally enforced monogamy. Not quite. Marriage is a creational norm, not a Christian norm. Had man never sinned, had Jesus Christ never died, had there been no church, there would’ve been marriages: in fact, a world-populating multitude of splendorous, sinless, child-producing marriages. Marriages are not the result of Christianity. Marriages are one of the conditions that make Christianity possible at all. Christianity perfects marriage; it didn’t create it. The fact that this reasoning might stun modern evangelicals shows how far they have drifted from biblical creational theology, subordinating creation to redemption, precisely the wrong sequence, which has neutralized churches in their battle against cultural secularization.

What Would Jesus Politicize?

Pastor Wilson tries to deflate structural pluralism by noting that when Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t command that his disciples declare structural pluralism and forbid that anybody mention his name.  I couldn’t help but think when reading this line of William F. Buckley’s quip about the author who was a pyromaniac in a field of straw men. Obviously my case for structural pluralism is biblically inferential. But I did point out specific biblical texts that require blind, evenhanded, “neutral” treatment on the level political playing field, a distinctive plank in classical liberalism. I suggested that the Gospel is so powerful that it doesn’t need the Feds propping it up (nor did the Founders believe this). Christianity — and Christian culture — must be voluntarily embraced; it cannot be politically imposed. The Founders had seen enough politically imposed Christianity to last a few lifetimes, thank you very much!

“[W]hen you lose confidence in the power of Jesus Christ, you vest confidence in the power of the state.”

While using different language now, what I was saying originally is that while classical liberalism does not norm, it is itself normed by divine revelation (creational and biblical). The playing field and rules don’t dictate who will score or win the game, but somebody did make the rules and build the playing field. The Founders were all molded by a generic Protestantism that informed how they made the rules and built the field. They assumed a Christian cultural consensus that made an explicitly Christian political consensus unnecessary. To paraphrase James Carville: It’s the culture, stupid.


One way to counter our present predicament of the evaporated Christian consensus, which the Founders knew alone could sustain their political system, would be simply to change the political system to restore a godly society: you could, for example, devise a Christian dictatorship. But I’m convinced this is not what Pastor Wilson wants. Nor should anybody else.

This also points to the quandary of the broader post-liberalism of people like Sohrab Ahmari: they don’t like the present depraved culture, and they don’t like the classical liberalism within which it emerged, but they also don’t tell us what they would replace classical liberalism with. The reason for this omission is likely that the replacement would be an assault on liberty which, in turn, would be an assault on Biblical Christianity.

The polygamy question

Pastor Wilson asks, “What kind of guidance does structural pluralism give on the question of polygamy once the informal protections of a widely shared Christianity are eroding?” Let’s turn the interrogative into a declarative: when the Christian consensus is gone, we can no longer protect against polygamy. That’s right: we can’t, and, in fact, we never could have. The possibility of widespread polygamy was there from the beginning, and the only thing protecting against it was the Christian consensus that generated pro-monogamy legislation, a consensus that is now gone, and, therefore, also the religious basis for the legal prohibition of polygamy. Another way of saying this is: there are no political guarantees when they are no longer cultural guarantees. Politics is downstream from culture.

Pastor Wilson is addressing the dilemma of what Christians formerly enjoying a Christian consensus should do to correct deep, profound sins and depravities resulting from the loss of that consensus and the political scourges they inflict. That consensus was not lost because the nation was never officially Christian, and it will not be restored if it becomes officially Christian. You get rid of the problems of a lost Christian consensus by recovering that consensus.

The tyranny of the “Highest Good”

The task of politics in the Christian conception is not to create the virtuous society (in the words of Ahmari “a public [i.e., political] square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”), but to create a peaceful, liberty-girded playing field on which individuals, families, churches, schools, and businesses can grapple for a virtuous society.

We have been, however, observers in recent history of politics designed to create virtuous societies, “re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”: the Soviet Union, Communist China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and Islamic Iran. The role of the state in Christianity is not to create the virtuous society but to suppress public, life- and liberty- and property-depriving evils (Romans 13:1–7) so that everybody can go about the business of living (1 Timothy 2:1–8). Christians should have confidence that their Faith will eventually emerge victorious in the culture, as long as they have a level political playing field.

But when you lose confidence in the power of Jesus Christ, you vest confidence in the power of the state.

Roger Scruton, British conservative not known as a champion of classical liberalism, nonetheless notes of its exhibition in the premier political document of the United States:

The US Constitution was not a panacea, a comprehensive doctrine by which all life should be guided. It left the citizen in charge, free to adopt whatever way of life might conform to the purely negative constraints of the central government — and that was its greatest virtue.

Roger Scruton

For classical liberalism, the political arrangement, the playing field with its evenhanded rules, is the virtue. All other virtues are supplied in and by the culture. And if they are not, a panicky, self-designated virtuous politics may not step in to correct the culture’s irresponsibility.


Anxious for statist political protections as the baying hounds of secularism nip at our heals is not a strategy for cultural victory. It is, at best, a strategy for temporary political victory, which will quickly be transformed into political repression when our cultural enemies gain (or regain) the political upper hand.

The alternative to classical liberalism is a dictatorial society of one sort, whether culturally Marxist or Christian statism. But Christian statism is a contradiction of terms. Christians don’t have access to the statist political tools the Cultural Marxists do.

We have better tools.

We must win (again) on the cultural battlefield.  And if we can’t win there, no amount of titular political victories, including the official profession “Jesus is Lord,” will suffice.

Let’s keep culture upstream and politics downstream.

[1] I did not say “other post-liberal conservatives,” because I’m not convinced Pastor Wilson is one.

[2] This what a reductio, the word Pastor Wilson employs in his title, means.


Classical Liberalism, Consistently Christian

Because I’m a long-time friend of David Bahnsen and long-time fan of National Review, I’ll address briefly Pastor Douglas Wilson’s (mild) criticism of both. My chief impetus, however, is to reassert the Christian assumptions behind classical liberalism, the underlying (though not exclusive) political philosophy of the American Founding under withering assault by modern “progressives” (Cultural Marxists) and suffering surprising potshots from the illiberal nationalist conservatives. A striking clearinghouse for the latter is First Things, which under Rusty Reno’s editorship has turned into the opposite of what Richard John Neuhaus launched it to be: an explicitly Christian organ for classical liberalism. It’s now an explicitly (but inconsistently) Christian organ for classical illiberalism, that is, the sort of illiberalism traditionally practiced by both Catholics and Protestants attempting to weigh the state in their favor and deprive their religious competitors (Christian or not) of religious liberty. It was this classical illiberalism that classical liberalism was created to replace in the first place, after Europe’s tragic Thirty Years’ War (of Religions).

For his part, Pastor Wilson wants to distinguish Christian classical liberalism from secular classical liberalism. The latter is oxymoronic. I think what he wants to say is that what passes today in some quarters for classical liberalism is simply secularism living off the capital of classical liberalism. In fact, he does also say this. But this is not secular classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is conceptually Christian.

It developed as a unique convergence of three main ideational streams: (1) generic Protestant Christianity; (2) the British common law tradition; and (3) the conservative (British) wing of the Enlightenment (as opposed to the radical French wing). It was articulated by thinkers like Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith. It consists of eight bedrock principles (on which I don’t have space to expand): (1) individual liberty, (2) religious liberty, (3) separation of powers, (4) protection for minorities, (5) property rights, (6) Protestant openness to cautious experimental change, (7) universal morality, and (8) religio-cultural virtue. It was Christianity, in large part, which furnished the rationale for the unique combination of these exceptional characteristics. In this sense, it’s proper to refer to the Founding as Christian: not explicitly or officially, but conceptually and attitudinally. The Founders relied on ancient Greco-Roman ideas also, of course, but their unique experiment in liberty was framed within a generic Protestantism many of them took for granted, whether they professed an orthodox Christianity or not (most of them did). It was not secular. Not even close.

Pastor Wilson advocates both the original and American revisions of the mid-17th century Westminster Confession of Faith as they pertain to church-state relations. Both limit religious liberty to Christians and potentially withdraw it from non-Christians. The original confession was hammered out in England by Protestants living within the conflagrations of church-state conflict. This conflict included the presence of a national Protestant church (Anglicanism). It’s not possible simply to decontextualize this document and plant its views on church-state relations into the American political experiment without further ado.

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As an example of the attempt to do this, Pastor Wilson writes: “America must have an official faith. At our Founding, it was the Christian faith.” Well, no. The Founders emphatically avoided an official religious faith. All of the states had a Christian establishment of some sort, and some preserved established churches well into the 19th century. What they wished to avoid was an established national church whose political privileges many of them had to come to oppose and fear. Even had they attempted a national religious establishment, the states would never have ratified the Constitution. They didn’t want the Feds messing with their state religious establishments. Almost all of the Founders took for granted that Christianity was the dominant faith in the colonies at the time and would be in the foreseeable future. They shaped the Founding institutions on that assumption: transcendent, divine law; the dignity of the individual created in God’s image; human sinfulness; and so forth. They knew that it wasn’t necessary to create an officially recognized faith for a culture to be Christian; they soon lived within one. In fact, well into the 19th century the nation was largely Christian, apart from any national official religious establishment, though far from a perfect Christian culture (as slavery so painfully proves). So when Pastor Wilson writes …

David Bahnsen is exactly right that there is no neutrality. But this truth extends beyond private agents, beyond individuals. There is also no neutrality for corporate actors either—whether we are talking about corporations like Google, or nations like the United States. Each individual must give an account of himself, and each corporate entity that acts in the world must also give that same kind of account. By what standard? So of course David French fights for religious liberty in the way he does because there is no neutrality in his life. But we need to do more than that. We need to point out that there can be no neutrality in America’s life either. We make decisions with moral implications, just like individuals do, and we have to give an account for them, just like individuals do. It is therefore our responsibility as Christians to call America, in her corporate capacity, to repentance and faith…

… he need not (and should not) have in mind an officially recognized Christianity in the U.S. or, for that matter, the states. Pastor Wilson implicitly chides David Bahnsen for failing to suggest that religious non-neutrality extends beyond individuals. But David’s point was that the fact that there’s no cultural neutrality does not mean there should be a lack of procedural neutrality, a structural, as opposed to substantive, pluralism. This simply means that, as classical liberalism holds, a society can and should be grounded in religious truth while providing a framework within which all people of all religious viewpoints can equally live in peace.

A Tale of Two Pluralisms

Consistent Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other. We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism. Christianity supports structural pluralism, a cornerstone of classical liberalism. This is the view that the structure of a society, and especially the state, should not be tilted to advantage Christians or adherents or any other religion or worldview. For example, the state should not issue quotas for religious adherents in the labor force, should not require that only one religion be explicated in government or education, should not dictate that anyone become a Christian or any other religion or life-system, or punish anyone for apostasy from that religion or life-system (as, for instance, Islam does). Structural pluralism creates a level legal playing field of society.

Christianity supports structural pluralism because it relies on the power of the Holy Spirit and (subordinately) human persuasion for its success. Individuals come to Christianity by faith, a voluntary act of trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Romans 10:9–11). Christianity is willing to have a society comprised also of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists because it does not need the coercive power of the state to win converts. This is why Christianity has been at the forefront of constitutional democracy and the liberties it affords.  Christianity is a religion of peace (Acts 10:36), and it can afford for the structure of a society to be pluralistic; Christianity is not a statist or coercive religion.

However, Christianity does not countenance substantive pluralism. This is the idea that multiple, mutually exclusive worldviews, religions, and ethical standards can peacefully coexist only the grounds that none is entirely correct, all containing truth and contributing to the beautiful “mosaic” of a “diverse” society. No religion or other worldview should hold its views too strongly, knowing that each is only relatively valid. Belief itself, not merely the political structure within which a belief is practiced, is pluralistic. The social pests, therefore, are those who insist that their own view is right. They are troublemakers, because they lead people to believe that one specific way (their way) is right and all others are wrong. Substantive pluralism, by its very nature, is relativist.

Neutrality: No and Yes

In Christianity, because nothing substantive can be neutral, some things must be structurally neutral. God’s moral law requires just (equal) weights and balances (Leviticus 19:35–36). Neither rich nor poor may be privileged or de-privileged in court (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15). The law applies equally to citizens and foreigners (Leviticus 19:34). In short, justice must be blind. The legal playing field must be level. Christianity, therefore, espouses procedural equality, not consequential equality. It was just this version of structural pluralism that classical liberalism adapted from Protestantism’s insistence or individual liberty and the Bible’s demand for procedural neutrality (if we want to use the term in this context).

Must National Review “Come To Jesus”?

Grasping this basic distinction will help defang Pastor Wilson’s patronizing verdict:

National Review needs to come to Jesus. Whether or not it is possible for the United States to become a Christian nation again (it is), we should all agree that it possible for NR to become a Christian magazine.

If nothing else, the verdict is strangely ill timed. Since he has been a decades-long reader (as I have), he certainly must have noticed that the magazine is more Christian in content now that at any time in its history. David Bahnsen himself as a board member of NR Institute illustrates that fact. Pastor Wilson doesn’t tell us how NR should become a Christian, or an even more Christian, magazine. By putting Christian in its name? Surely not, for a magazine the pastor himself once published (Credenda Agenda) did not have Christian in its name, yet it was certainly Christian. Must all writers be professing Christians? That would likely describe Sojourners, leading magazine of the evangelical Left, but somehow I get the impression that’s not the sort of Christian magazine the pastor is envisioning. It seems to me that what he really wants is a magazine that conforms to Christian presuppositions, but if so, in large measure that is what NR has done for decades and is increasingly doing, even if it includes a handful of non-Christian contributors. Non-Christian contributors do not necessarily produce a secular magazine any more than alleged Christian contributors necessarily create a Christian magazine. The fundamental factor in a Christian institution is its worldview. And, by and large, NR reflects such a worldview: a moral society, ordered liberty, economic freedom, negotiated politics, etc. It’s the reality, not the profession, that’s vital. Christian friends of mine own businesses (employing non-Christians) that exhibit Christian business ethics. They’re not professedly or officially Christian businesses, but they are no less Christian businesses. If, similarly, to “come to Jesus” means significant conformity to Christian truth in the realm of socio-cultural and political discourse, that’s just what NR does.

As the (non-Christian) editor Charles Cooke’s devastating comments make clear in the recent NR “The Editors” podcast “Define Your Terms,” the actual target of Christian illiberals like Sohrab Ahmari at First Things is the illiberalism of the “progressives”: “You must bake a cake for my wedding even if you believe marriage is between one man and one woman”; “You must fund my abortion with your tax dollars even if you believe life begins at conception”; “You must grant me the freedom of expression to deprive your freedom of expression if I don’t agree with your Christian (or conservative) viewpoint.” The Christian illiberals like Sohrab Ahmari (and Pastor Wilson? Is he politically illiberal? I’m honestly not sure) are right to oppose this Leftist illiberalism. But the solution isn’t a revived Christian illiberalism, which is — or should be — a contradiction of terms.

David Bahnsen and a number of other folks at NR and I hold our position not because our Christianity is weak, but because it is strong enough to invite all competitors onto a level playing field. We don’t need a coercive politics to protect us.

This is precisely what classical liberalism has always taught.