Liberalism: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Patrick Deneen serves as a professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University. His book Why Liberalism Failed offers a scathing review of the current state of cultural alienation and emptiness that the author attributes to liberalism. Often, failure comes from one or more issues detrimental to an effort. Deneen offers a counterintuitive premise for liberalism’s failure. “Liberalism has failed not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” The book is classified as political science and also emphasizes sociology. For a book tracing philosophical thought that expressed itself in the West, especially in America, I found this book to possess theological and anthropological underpinnings. What does it mean to be human? What is the best context for freedom to facilitate connection rather than disassociation? Those questions and more flow through Deneen’s sobering review of liberalism gone too far. Deneen believes liberty does not mean freedom from self, others, and social connections essential to human thriving.
While never clearly defining liberalism, the author states that it “…conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” The success of liberalism launched its ongoing conquest of separation from oneself and a community. Specifically, Deneen describes modern liberalism as causing a detrimental form of freedom liberated from traditions, the past, culture, religion, family, and even one’s biology.
“(T)he political project of liberalism is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.”
In a flow of thought and research much like Carl Trueman, Deneen traces the philosophical thought that inspired liberalism best represented by the establishment of it in America.
The author aims his argument at both sides of the political aisle in modern American liberal democracy. Conservatives love a free market and limited government but push for global expansion of liberalism despite its flaws. Liberals leverage government to expand individual autonomy, an application Deneen makes to the current departure from one’s biology in determining one’s sexual identity. Deneen decries the departure from cultural norms, social ties, community networks, and associations that provide support. Inevitably, without those supporting structures, people turn to the state, which the author believes is self-defeating and far from the idealistic promises of liberalism. The strategies of the political right and left lead to the same end. Deneen’s arguments about disconnectedness ring true in significant ways. However, the author fails to offer a fair evaluation as the modern world, along with its liberalism, has produced many positive impacts on human existence, human rights, scientific advancement, and gender equality efforts.
Deneen hints at solutions to the liberalism dilemma. He longs to recover a virtuous form of “self-governance” found in historical times founded on “the common good.” He champions pre-liberal thinkers to whom “even the possibility of a divide between (nature and culture) would have been incomprehensible.”Pre-liberal thought did not pit nature versus nurture but saw them as symbiotic. Human thriving resulted from a correspondence to the natural order, not disassociation from it. Deneen points favorably to social connectedness represented in Christian ideals manifest in Amish communities of today. I found his admiration of ancient civilization’s virtue surprising and I remembered Tom Holland’s journey from admiration to a conclusion that ancient Greece thought more like a Nazi than a Christian.
Deneen’s solution to the deformations of liberalism seeks to reclaim what is more local, tribal, and limited. He longs for “practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis life.” This book received many reviews, most accusing Deneen of historical errors, misinterpretations, and oversimplifications. While I cannot critique his portrayal of history, I do question his vision of the future. He wants “people of goodwill to form distinctive countercultural communities in ways distinct from the deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism seems above all to foster.” Are ancient Greece or the Amish community the models of liberty to emulate? I think not.
As I pondered the application of Deneen’s argument to a ministry context, I centered on his desire for a connection to religion. While I share that desire for my culture, I believe he points the source of disconnect at the wrong target. In his criticism of liberalism, religion falls as one of its victims. I believe the author lets the Church off the proverbial hook too quickly. The Church can thrive in any political arena, as demonstrated over the last two-thousand years. Many aspects of life with God and one another in the Church community address the very issues Deneen effectively argues to be lost in this cultural moment. If those have been lost regarding faith, it is the Church’s fault and signals one of two things: 1) A willingness to follow culture wherever it leads rather than manifesting its purposes, or 2) The attempt to maintain faith effectively from a previous cultural moment, not the current one. In a time where personal ownership of one’s issues seems hard to find, may the Church look at itself rather than point to politics as a scapegoat. When it comes to liberty, the Church should present a beautiful option that includes a unique form. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17 ESV)
 Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 3.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 67-68.
 Ibid., 106-107.
 Ibid., 197.
 Ibid., 179.
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