For purposes of the following discussion let us define liberalism as a modern cultural movement whose goal is twofold: (a) to get rid of traditional or old-fashioned ideas and practices; and (b) to replace these with “new and improved” ideas and practices.
I am using the word “culture” in a broad sense to include society, politics, and religion. In the 20th, century Bertrand Russell was a good example of the type (a) or negative liberal while Franklin D. Roosevelt was a good example of the type (b) or positive liberal. No liberal is purely negative or purely positive. Every liberal is a combination of the two, but some lean more in one direction while others lean more in the other.
Given this definition, we may say that liberalism begins in America about 300 years ago with the rise, especially in New England, of Arminianism, which rejected the Calvinist denial of free will and replaced it with the new and improved idea that the individual person is free to reject or accept God’s offer of grace. Traditional Calvinists, most notably Jonathan Edwards, sensed that acceptance of Arminianism would lead in time to the acceptance of far more radical rejections of traditional Protestantism. Edwards was right. In less than a century, Arminianism evolved into Unitarianism.
Now you might expect that liberalism would fade away when all old and bad things had been rejected and replaced by new and better things. Once all the dragons in the kingdom had been slain, and only puppies and kittens and unicorns remained, you might think that the liberal knight would settle down and enjoy life in the quiet of his castle.
But no. For to give up the fight against old things would be to give up his identity as a liberal knight. And that’s an identity all liberals are proud of. What would they do without it?
And so the true liberal, after he has defeated the most conspicuous evils of traditionalism, goes in search of less conspicuous evils. After slaying the big dragons, he kills the little ones, and after that he smashes all the dragon eggs. (I assume dragons lay eggs, but please correct me if I’m wrong.)
After repairing the world, the liberal finds – at least when he looks hard enough, which he usually does – that the world still abounds in evils that must be destroyed. For instance, after persuading everybody to renounce racism, the liberal finds that there are new forms of racism whose existence a previous generation of liberals didn’t even suspect – forms such as implicit racism, unconscious racism, systemic racism, etc. And he finds that racists reveal themselves whenever they utter those guilty words, “I’m not a racist.”
The liberal passion for the destruction of old things never vanishes. Sometimes it blows hot, sometimes cold. But it never goes away, for it is of the very essence of liberalism to destroy old things to clear the ground for new and better things – or at least for things that seem to be better. They are like those people who tear down a $250,000 house in order to build a $1,250,000 mini-mansion on the same spot.
Sometimes the liberal finds evil in the new and better things that replaced the old evils. Modern capitalism, for instance, was a great liberal improvement on the old-and-bad economic system of earlier centuries. But in time, many liberals have come to find fault with capitalism, and they begin to wonder if it should be replaced with some form of socialism.
Likewise many liberals, who once got rid of established religion in favor of individual freedom of religion, have come to believe that religious liberty itself is a bad thing – for it allows churches to teach an immoral morality that is misogynistic, homophobic, and/or transphobic.
The finest flower of liberalism is the culture of modernity – a culture which, abounding in personal and corporate liberty, has produced nearly unbelievable fruits in commerce, industry, transportation, science, engineering, medicine, communications, literature, and all the other fine arts. But if you’re a consistent liberal you now suspect that modernity itself is a great evil. Perhaps we need to move into a postmodern era.
Like the old Greek god Kronos (Saturn in Rome), who devoured his children, today’s liberalism appears to be moving in the direction of destroying many of its offspring.
What will a postmodern world look like? In the 20th century, we had two great experiments with anti-liberal postmodernism, Nazism and communism. Would a third great experiment resemble these earlier two? Perhaps. For, like them, it might well lead to a radical curtailment of personal and corporate liberty.
All this will probably take a long time. In the meantime, today’s liberals are hard at work destroying such things as unborn human life, the married two-parent family, sexual differentiation, the surviving remnants of Christianity, the fine old Protestant custom of daily Bible-reading, and our ancient notion that literature should be evaluated on the basis of intrinsic merit and not on the basis of the race, gender, or sexual orientation of the author.
Will there be any room for Catholicism in the postmodern future? The Catholic religion is a very unmodern thing – but unmodern in a way that is radically different from other possible forms of postmodernism. One of the great historical talents of Catholicism has been its ability, while rejecting all non-Christian alternatives, to preserve the best of some of these alternatives. Vergil accompanying Dante through Hell is a great symbol of this talent.
If Catholicism is to have a future in a postmodern world (that is to say, a post-liberal world), it will be because Catholicism, more than anything else, will be able to appreciate and preserve the great achievements of modern liberalism – its capitalism, its science, its arts, its medicine, its tremendous enhancements of human knowledge and power – just as, once upon a time, it was able to appreciate and preserve the great achievements of Greece and Rome while discarding the sordid aspects of ancient paganism.
*Image: Saturn Devouring a Son by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-38 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]