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Friday, March 28, 2003

Liberalism divided.

On Wednesday I mentioned the theologian and social ethicist James Luther Adams in response to Paul Berman's challenging question: "Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure?" In 1936, when liberalism faced considerable opposition from within Western culture, Adams wrote: "[W]ithout the support of religious principles and religious enthusiasm liberalism cannot hope to fight a long, hard campaign in any field. Political liberalism has suffered serious defeat whenever it lacked foundations of philosophic thought or the stamina or moral endurance which religion can supply." And he worked tirelessly to identify these foundations.

Here's a selection from "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith" that draws on Alfred North Whitehead's distinction between "general ideas" and "specialized notions." (I've introduced two paragraph breaks to keep things readable on-line.)

Liberalism's "general idea" has been to promote liberation from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus to contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence. This aspect of liberalism we may call its progressive element: it is always critical of the status quo and seeks new paths of fulfillment. A "specialized notion" of liberalism has developed during the last two centuries, namely a doctrine of pre-established harmony coupled with the laissez-faire theory of society. Under the conditions of early capitalism, this doctrine was vindicated in economic progress. But beginning a century ago progressive liberalism became critical of this "specialized notion."

From the point of view of progressive liberalism, the laissez-faire society was producing new structures of arbitrary domination that frustrated both equality and justice. Accordingly, the more general idea of liberalism has come into conflict with a specialized version of it. Progressive liberalism has criticized laissez-faire liberalism as being closely bound up with the narrow interest of the middle class, and also with its dogma of political nonintervention in the economic sphere. Progressive liberals have also protested against the status quo that was defended by laissez-faire liberals. In support of the labor movement, and, subsequently, of the minorities ignored by labor, they demanded a more responsible society — a political intervention on behalf of the disinherited. Here the specific aims took the form of attack on monopolistic use of power and also on the form of attempts to control inflation and depression. So great has been the tension between the general and the specialized forms of liberalism that some people have rightly asserted that the strategies of progressive liberalism are in fact the opposite of laissez-faire liberalism . . .

An aside: This division accounts for the fact that some of the "conservative" political ideas in contemporary America are actually versions of the "specialized notion" of liberalism — like libertarianism! And, since Adams's bias towards progressive politics is apparent here, we should note that there are "specialized notions" of progressive liberalism, too — and that these need some critical revision these days. But back to Adams:

Liberal Christianity is not by definition identical with liberalism considered either as a generalized or a specialized notion. Liberal Christianity is explicitly oriented to the ultimate resources of human existence and meaning discerned in the Old and New Testaments and in Christian experience, and in Anglo-American society, it finds its modern roots primarily in the "Left Wing of the Reformation." At the same time, liberal Christianity has been associated with several kinds of liberalism, both generalized and specialized. Indeed, because of its intentional entanglements in the secular order — in contrast to the orthodoxies that claim to remain aloof — liberal Christianity is never in its actuality easy to distinguish from one or another form of these associated forms of liberalism, except perhaps in terms of its ultimate orientation.

At the same time liberal Christianity has aimed to be critical of these forms of liberalism. The relationships of creative involvement and critical tension are roughly analogous to those that Paul Tillich takes into account in his conception of the "Protestant Principle," a principle that is creative but that also brings into question every actualization of Protestantism. Thus liberal Christianity must protest the confusions in liberalism itself.

Whew! Next week I'll highlight some of the ways Adams tried to distinguish enduring liberal values and their sources from their transient and sometimes dangerous formulations. (Source: James Luther Adams, "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith" in On Being Human Religiously, ed. by Max L. Stackhouse. Second ed., Beacon Press; 5-6.)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 28 March 2003 at 4:57 PM

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