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.


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