Ezra Klein, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, has commented on Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, a recent book that claims liberalism (the shared assumptions of human dignity, universal rights, individualism, and democracy) is on the decline, in part due to the rise of anti-liberal sentiments among far-right philosophers and politicians.

This new form of anti-liberal critique is multicultural, celebrating cultural difference, seeking to preserve the uniqueness of various peoples, and rejecting sentimental, globalist pieties. Some of these critics of liberalism find Christianity to blame, at least in part, for the current malaise.

The Strange Appeal of Christianity

As Klein reads the right-wing critics of the liberal order, he finds himself stirred by the accomplishments of a democratic republic—“a marvel of imagination and ambition,” an ideology that helps humanity adopt new forms of social organization, even if this requires an “untethering” from tribal “hierarchies.”

Klein then writes about the anti-liberal critique of Christianity, describing the counterintuitive appeal:

Christianity, too, gleams with a light it often lacks in today’s politics, and even in its pews: Here is a religion that insists on the dignity of all people and centers the poor and the marginalized. [The anti-liberals] fear Christianity because they fear it cannot be tamed; even when the leaders they admire try to subvert it for their own purposes, it infects their societies with a latent egalitarianism, setting a trap that will inevitably be sprung.

The critics are right to fear the Christian faith cannot be tamed, no matter how many politicians on both the right and left and everywhere in between seek to harness the power of the church and instrumentalize the gospel for ideological purposes. The latent “egalitarianism” of which Klein speaks—this deep and abiding belief in the value and dignity of every human being—always serves as an irritant in societies that easily drift toward the self-justifying tendencies of the question posed to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” as if to narrow the circumference of concern. The early Christians widened that circle, which is why true Christianity cannot ever rest comfortably in a society that enshrines racial superiority into law or refuses to extend rights and protections to the weak and powerless, including our preborn neighbor in the womb.

A Better Relationship to Time

Klein acknowledges the need for those who appreciate the benefits of living in the liberal order to find a healthier relationship to time and the past.

Liberalism needs a healthier relationship to time. Can the past become a foreign country without those who still live there being turned into foreigners in their own land? If the future is to be unmapped, then how do we persuade those who fear it, or mistrust us, to agree to venture into its wilds?

Klein is onto something here, but one of his assumptions is off. He is right to note that the liberal order often leads to a warped view of the past, one that constantly confronts us with the failures and deficiencies of previous generations, as if we alone are morally enlightened. That’s why we must find a way to bring along those who feel left behind” or “left out” of what he assumes (but never states) is the march of moral progress.

I appreciate this concern for those who haven’t yet jumped on the bandwagon of “progress,” but the condescension inherent in the framing demonstrates intellectual captivity to the Enlightenment view of progress. We are shedding the silly superstitions of the past and moving forward to a more tolerant and just society. This is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” and it resists Chesterton’s description of the “democracy of the dead,” the willingness to give votes not only to the “oligarchy” of those who happen to be alive but also to those who have gone before.

And here, Christianity has yet another trap to be sprung: the message of the resurrection upends all other calendars and eschatologies. You cannot fit Christianity comfortably into the vision of “moral and intellectual progress” at the core of the Enlightenment experiment. Its vision of the future is altogether different.

Beauty and Strangeness

Still, Klein recognizes the need for Christianity to be part of the renewing the liberal order:

What I, as an outsider to Christianity, have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is. Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.

A profound description of the beauty and strangeness of Christianity. Klein is right to see the emphasis on universal sin and insufficiency, and he’s right to desire the equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken.

And yet Christianity is stranger and more beautiful still. It’s not the moral vision but the historical truth that lies at the heart of the faith—the forgiveness that bleeds out from a man who truly was crucified and laid to rest in a tomb, and who got up on the third day. The foundation is not sin and insufficiency, but grace and salvation.

There’s a reason why liberal democracies have risen first and foremost in places suffused with Christian assumptions and presuppositions (see Tom Holland’s Dominion for an overview) and why the attempts to build nations in the Middle East and elsewhere have run into significant headwinds. Our liberal democracy takes for granted Christian assumptions.

The more our society veers away from those assumptions, the harder it becomes to sustain the liberal project. We are, as Os Guinness has said, “a cut-flower civilization.” We’ve cut ourselves off from the roots of truth, dignity, freedom, and equality, hoping that the fumes of our Christian heritage will sustain a new secular order without the moral and metaphysical underpinnings that gave rise to this worldview in the first place. It won’t work.

Liberal democracies, long-term, need the basics of Christian anthropology if they’re to survive. But Christianity does not need liberal democracy in order to flourish. And so, whatever may happen in the next century, I can rest assured that the church will still be around, surviving and thriving in whatever environments it is placed, planting new traps that will spring and surprise.

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