In times of political turmoil, images of political unity provide hope for a troubled republic. One such image appeared in Dearborn, Michigan.
As Joy Pullmann reported, conservative Muslims and Christians found common ground in demanding that Dearborn public schools remove pornography from their libraries. While these two groups shared different “general beliefs or convictions,” they found unity in their understanding of what children are and the need to shield their children from accessible porn in school libraries. The “metaphysical dream” of their opposition, which wanted to preserve descriptions of divergent human sexualities to inspire children to adopt such lifestyles, is directly contradictory to that of these religious constituencies.
There can be no common ground or compromise between these two metaphysical dreams, only ideological warfare. Such ideological divides are becoming more common, indicating a crucial question about American political life: Can classical liberalism operate in a post-Christian America?
Classical liberalism has produced immense civilizational wealth. It’s led to the lowering of trade barriers, which encourages the free exchange of goods, ideas, and people across national borders, and the affirming of human rights through documents like the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s led to unprecedented levels of international collaboration through organizations like the UN, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund, each of which has profoundly affected the world. This way of collaborating in a common political and economic sphere is called classical liberalism.
Classical liberalism tends to produce substantial wealth but cannot explain what societal wealth and individual human flourishing are for. If we no longer have an answer to that kind of grand, civilizational, and teleological question, how long can the liberal order endure? Christianity once framed classical liberalism and provided both a telos (purpose) and a set of moral principles governing the practice of liberalism; Christianity’s decline reveals that classical liberalism cannot provide a moral framework for itself.
The benefits of classical liberal government are clear. On a global scale, poverty has declined, wealth has grown, technology has advanced, and education is more accessible. At the same time, America has never been more divided on issues of fundamental importance, which weigh more heavily than material prosperity. Questions of abortion, transgender ideology, inflation, and election integrity divide the country. The political turmoil these questions provoke reveals the depths of our disagreement.
Politicians and pundits use the term “polarization” to describe this reality, often paired with complaints about extremist rhetoric. Typically, this term connotes people operating at the fringe, suggesting they need to moderate themselves. Such a connotation fails to account for the real philosophical difference such polarized discourse reveals. Rather than reflecting attempts to ratchet up the rhetoric for a candidate’s electoral victory, this polarization indicates something deeper about classical liberalism: wealth alone is not enough to sustain a nation, and that reality pushes our consideration to something deeper. For liberalism to survive into the future, it needs a widely accepted moral framework. The tensions of our political moment grow out of the collapse of the prior framework.
Classical liberalism was born into a broadly Christian Europe and America. While the Founding Fathers represented many denominations (and some were deists, like Franklin and Jefferson), they accepted the basic premises of Christian anthropology and politics.
These include the following: Humans are inherently wicked and prefer vice to virtue in the absence of restraints or clear incentives; government is a gift from God to restrain evil in the world and encourage good; and whether he realizes it or not, the ruler wields the sword as an active agent of God.
Madison suggested that the lofty goal of a self-governing people would only last so long as men were moral; if Christianity declined, the number of laws and enforcement of laws would rise.
The founders and framers built a government that presumed private (Christian) morality acting as an internal restraint reducing the need for external government restraints. They did not foresee a day when Christianity would be depicted as the source of societal oppression. The last century and a half has seen the widespread decline of biblical Christianity along with the inability of any other moral system to take its place. We are left unable to define what human beings are, what duties we owe to each other, and how to live together in a community. Identity politics has not proved to be as stable and truthful a source of meaning as the Christianity it is replacing in our society.
Where earlier politicians could agree on political actions and compromise because of their agreement on ultimate things, our current political class, to speak very broadly, lacks any consensus on the nature of man and of justice, as demonstrated by Supreme Court Justice Jackson being unwilling to answer the question, “What is a woman?”
Al Mohler presents Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom as representatives of the divide that could face voters in the 2024 presidential election. DeSantis wields his executive power to affirm parental rights, check Disney’s attempts to spread propaganda, and restrict government overreach via Covid policy. Newsom is an agent of propaganda; he affirms the fullness of the LGBT agenda, signed legislation to fix prices on California’s fast food industry, and fails to uphold the rule of law. Neither of these men can see the other as seeking the good of America because they lack any agreement on the nature of that good.
In his 1948 piece “Ideas Have Consequences,” Richard Weaver argues that “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.” On a practical level, community members can disagree on specific ideas and general beliefs only if there is agreement on the level of the metaphysical dream.
This dream Weaver calls an “intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification. Without overlapping metaphysical dreams, it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time. The dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.”
We live in the aftermath of the American metaphysical dream’s collapse, and without such a dream, political claims cannot be debated.
What does a way forward look like? It begins not with political rhetoric but with foundational agreement on the most important questions. We need to have a widespread and shared understanding of essential concepts like what it means to be a human person, what the purpose of human life is, what ends man ought to strive for, and the duties that we owe each other.
For the American political experiment to continue, we need a return to first principles grounded in an agreement on the nature of God, man, and government. In the absence of agreement on these doctrines, we will continue to see polarization spread and democratic dialogue die.