Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Religion and Liberalism

[Thought this item would be of interest to readers of this blog.]

Sightings  2/28/05
Conservative Hopes for Liberalism
-- Martin E. Marty

Sightings likes to look both right and left.  Few magazines in our library or mailbox are liberal, but the sometimes somewhat liberal New Republic, which celebrates its ninetieth anniversary this very day, is here with an issue dedicated "To Liberalism!  Embattled ... And Essential."  The authors of eight articles on the subject are very hard on what remains of liberalism, and offer rather modest signals of hope for tomorrow.  Religious language and themes run through many of these articles.

Peter Beinart reminds us that "great causes and missionary impulses that rouse citizens to engage with the world" -- old liberal themes -- have largely passed to conservative mission-minders.  Jonathan Chait asks us to "imagine that God were to appear on Earth for the unlikely purpose of settling, once and for all, our disputes over economic policy," presenting irrefutable empirical data that conservatives were correct.  "How would liberals respond?" Chait asks.  They would bow down and change.  Suppose, on the other hand, that God's empirical data agreed with the liberals' claims.  Conservatives would be unmoved; they believe in certain dogmas, no matter what the situation, claims liberal-chiding Chait.

Martin Peretz joins so many others these days in wishing that "the most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr," could reappear -- though heirs of those to and for whom Niebuhr spoke would not listen because he "held a gloomy view of human nature."  No spokesperson has succeeded him as philosopher-theologian for liberals.  Someone should come along and wake them up.  Leon Wieseltier speaks of his own "Augustinian heart," and criticizes another author for "his sunniness about salvation" from economic problems -- a limiting factor today.

E. J. Dionne, who for years has fused religious themes with moderate liberal economic and political philosophy and concerns, anchors the issue with a long altar call worth the price of the issue: " Faith Full: When the Religious Right Was Left."  He, too, wishes for a Reinhold Niebuhr to infuse liberalism with now-neglected Augustinian views of original sin.  Dionne's historical sweep is impressive.  Today's media has stood in awe of evangelicalism as a phalanx devoted to anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-stem-cell research, pro-school prayer, pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-war concerns.  Such portrayals present a distorted picture, and the many dimensions of evangelicalisms also suggest other issues.  And they have different, usually unknown or overlooked, histories.

Dionne is concerned that the new assertiveness by political evangelicals has helped drive liberals into secular(istic) positions, postures, and camps.  And he shows why, if that is the case, these are futile situations to be in -- situations that also obscure the religious ancestry of modern political liberalism.  The "Social Gospel" was part of the program of both William Jennings Bryan-type progressive-conservatism and liberal Christian social activism.  The same goes for Catholicism, whose Bishop's Program of 1919 pioneered New Deal measures.  And, of course, liberal Protestantism was then in the vanguard.

Look to your roots, Dionne seems to be saying to evangelicals, Catholics, and liberal Protestants alike.  The current growths and branches do not reflect those roots very well.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Perry, Michael | Permalink

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