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This Liberal Academic Wants Christians To Leave Politics To Leftists

Lilla wants all Christians to give up and let self-admitted liberal failures like himself have their way in politics.


Liberals don’t know how to fix our broken politics and degraded culture, they just know they don’t want Christians to try.

This was made clear by liberal academic Mark Lilla’s recent New York Review of Books fulmination against postliberal Catholic thinkers. Lilla focuses on the usual suspects — Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule — but his specific analysis of their work against political and philosophical liberalism is overshadowed by his apparent conclusion that all Christians should get out of politics.

Lilla grudgingly acknowledges that his targets “get a number of things right. There is a malaise … in modern Western societies, reflected above all in the worrisome state of our children, who are ever more depressed and suicidal. And we do lack adequate political concepts and vocabulary for articulating and defending the common good and placing necessary limits on individual autonomy.” Lilla includes himself in this liberal failure to even provide a conceptual framework for how to address the crisis around us.

Nonetheless, he insists that liberalism’s incapacity does not mean Deneen and company are right, either in their full diagnosis or their proposed solutions. Rather, Lilla declares that they are “just one more example of the psychology of self-induced ideological hysteria, which begins with the identification of a genuine problem and quickly mutates into a sense of world-historical crisis and the appointment of oneself and one’s comrades as the select called to strike down the Adversary.” Whatever liberalism’s struggles may be, its postliberal critics are losing themselves in apocalyptic delusions of grandeur.

This may be a reasonable charge to level at a small, radical movement prone to rhetorical bombast and with a penchant for alienating potential allies. There is plentiful space for reasonable praise and criticism regarding the ideas, methods, and personalities of the Catholic postliberals. But Lilla instead concludes by haranguing them for their supposedly unchristian pursuit of political power, and he does this in a way that may be applied against any Christian involvement in politics.

What is striking in their works is that they almost never speak about the power of the Gospel to transform a society and culture from below by first transforming the inner lives of its members. Saving souls is, after all, a retail business, not a wholesale one, and has nothing to do with jockeying for political power in a fallen world. Such ministering requires patience and charity and humility. It means meeting individual people where they are and persuading them that another, better way of living is possible. This is the kind of ministering the postliberals should be engaged in if they are serious about wanting to see Americans abandon their hollow, hedonistic individualism — not hatching plans to infiltrate the Department of Education.

It is indeed possible for Christians to focus too much on politics and not enough on preaching, to put too much trust in princes and not enough in the Gospel. But Lilla’s critique leaves no space for vocation. After all, the postliberal triumvirate he identifies consists of a political theory professor (Deneen), a pundit (Ahmari), and a law professor (Vermeule). Focusing on politics and the exercise of power is literally each man’s job. Does Lilla believe Christians are never to pursue such vocations, or that if they do, they must leave their religion out of their work — that it is indefensible for a Christian political theorist to think about political theory as a Christian?

If so, he ought to say so directly, rather than sneaking it in as an inference toward the end of a long article. Furthermore, it is not as if Deneen and Co. are urging their fellow Christians (or even just their fellow postliberal Catholics) to abandon all evangelization, discipleship, and charity to focus entirely on politics. Indeed, secular liberals tend to vastly overestimate the politicization of doctrinally conservative churches and their members.

The truth is that, though their members tend also to be politically conservative, most conservative churches of any denomination spend very little time on politics, and they still wouldn’t even in the postliberal future of Adrian Vermeule’s dreams.

There is legitimate debate to be had over how, and how much, Christians should individually and corporately focus on politics — and over the relationship between Christianity and liberalism — but Lilla’s suggestion that the right answer is none is as much of a radical outlier as anything the postliberals have proposed.

He concludes his long essay by trying to concern-troll Christians into being quietists, warning that “as long as their focus is on culture wars rather than spreading the Good News, these Catholics will inevitably meet with disappointment.” Well, yes, politics will never give us all that we want or need. That doesn’t mean Christians should shun it.

Yet Lilla repeatedly presumes this is so, without ever having the courage to state and defend this proposition directly. Regarding the young men and women drawn to postliberalism, he writes, “If I were a believer and were called to preach a sermon to them, I would tell them to continue cultivating their minds and (why not) their souls together, and to leave Washington to the Caesars of this world.”

Lilla obviously is not objecting only to a small band of Catholic thinkers. Rather, he wants all Christians to give up and let self-admitted liberal failures like himself have their way in politics. But to take his advice would be a betrayal of both our citizenship and the love we ought to show to our neighbors. After all, in America the people are nominally the rulers, so citizenship comes with obligations of civic and political participation.

Furthermore, Christian truths about the nature of man and how we are to live well with each other are not just for Christians. They apply to everyone, rooted in the order of creation in general and human nature in particular. Christians therefore have a duty to prudentially integrate Christian moral truths into law and politics.

That Lilla is revolted at this basic Christian truth only bolsters the postliberal argument that liberalism is not a neutral system but is really a totalizing ideology that will have no other gods before itself. Lilla bristles at Vermeule’s suggestion that liberalism is satanic, yet it is hard to think of anything more likely to confirm it than his admission of liberal failures while still insisting that Christians must not offer political solutions.

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven indeed.

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