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Patrick Deneen & Michael Hanby on Christianity and Freedom in America

This year’s annual theme at MacLaurinCSF is “Freedom and the Free Society.” This month’s issue of First Things illustrates well why this theme is so timely, and important for Christians to consider carefully.

At the center of this month’s issue is an essay by Michael Hanby on “The Civic Project of American Christianity.” Hanby makes an argument similar to Patrick Deneen’s articles on liberal democracy for First Things and The American Conservative—a topic that Deneen worked out in greater detail when he gave our Holmer Lecture last fall:

Both scholars question whether traditional Catholicism (I would broaden this to traditional Christianity) is compatible with the core principles of liberalism. (Note: when they use the term “liberalism,” Deneen and Hanby are referring to the classical liberal political philosophy identified with Locke and Hobbes that emphasizes individual freedom, not to the “liberal” politics of the Democratic party.)

Hanby and Deneen are part of a “radical Catholic” critique of liberalism that calls into question the union of Catholicism with the liberal principles inherent in America’s political order. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, nearly all American Catholics came to embrace this “civic project” of marrying Christianity to liberal democracy. (The wedding day for American Protestantism occurred much earlier, around the time of the nation’s founding.)

Hanby argues that many of the social issues confronting traditional Christians in the twenty-first century are the logical outworking of liberalism’s underlying philosophical principles—including its views of the human being and human freedom—rather than a later betrayal of those principles by “progressives” or anyone else. The outcomes of these liberal principles include a denial of any natural ordering to sexuality and marriage (which might limit the individual’s pursuit of self-fulfillment) as well as the state’s violation of religious liberty when religion conflicts with individual self-determination. The liberal view of human freedom requires a particular relationship between the state and the individual:

Insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself. The liberal state then becomes the mediator of all human relations, charged with creating in reality the denatured individuals heretofore existing only at the theoretical foundations of liberalism.

Our current situation, then, isn’t a “wrong turn” in the liberal political project, but rather its very fulfillment. Hanby doesn’t think that the proper response is a return to America’s founding principles, because this civic project already presupposed certain assumptions about being, humanity, and the good that departed in significant ways from traditional Christian ontology and anthropology. The game was decided before it played out, and was stacked heavily against traditional Christianity.

Hanby and Deneen are thus positioned alongside John Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy movement who propose a more thorough rethinking of the assumptions of modernity itself. Theirs is an effort to recover resources from an older Christian past to chart a post-modern (in the sense of “after modern”) Christianity that offers a genuine alternative to modernity rather than a baptized version of it. Rod Dreher’s response to Hanby in the issue falls into much the same camp, describing what he’s come to call the “Benedict Option” (named after Alasdair MacIntyre’s concluding line in After Virtue): a Christian strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture for the sake of preserving the traditional Christian heritage through the coming “Dark Age.”

Both Hanby and Deneen identify George Weigel as one of the leading traditional Catholic proponents of the civic project that finds compatibility between traditional Catholicism and liberal democracy. It’s especially interesting, then, how much Weigel, in his response, agrees with Hanby’s assessment of the present divide between traditional Christian and modern views of human freedom. Weigel differs most significantly with Hanby over how much is salvageable for Christians in the present situation: Weigel remains more sanguine than Hanby and Dreher that Christians can make progress within the existing order on life issues and religious liberty.

Though it’s not a formal response to Hanby, George Marsden’s essay on “A More Inclusive Pluralism” (paywall) in the same issue also takes a more optimistic view. He sees the possibility for a genuine pluralism in the existing liberal order that can include Christianity and other religious perspectives.

There’s much to think about in all of this. As a historian, I question the extent to which human history can ever be described as something like a logical outworking of certain philosophical principles, as important as those ideas might be. I also question whether as Christians we’re ever morally allowed the option of strategically removing ourselves from the cultures and institutions we’re placed in. To me, James Davison Hunter’s model of “faithful presence” within such post-Christian cultures and institutions seems to follow better the pattern of Christ.

I recommend that you read the current issue for yourself—you can read it at our study center if you don’t have a subscription. For more discussions like these, join us at the next meeting of our Readers of First Things Group: the group will meet next on March 11 to discuss the forthcoming March issue of the journal.

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