Monday, February 28, 2005
[Thought this item would be of interest to readers of this blog.]
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
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
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.