Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Irony of Attacking Liberalism

Written by: on March 22, 2023

“Progressive,” “Fundamentalism,” “Liberalism,” “Conservatives,” and “Neoliberals” are all terms that are thrown around often as a label for a particular way of thinking or belief system; equally as often, they are used as grenades to lob at the other side for their “extreme” or “woke” agendas. However, like many words, a large segment of the population does not know nor understand their original meaning. Classic Liberalism is an economic and political philosophy that focuses on the liberties of individuals within a society, promoting economic freedom, individual rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on.

Not only has this term been twisted by opponents of a “Liberal agenda,” but Patrick Deneen, a political scholar, believes that genuine Liberalism is under threat of extinction. Deneen penned Why Liberalism Failed to tackle these challenges by examining the history, philosophy, and political science behind Liberalism.  

“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but be- cause it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As Liberalism has ‘become more fully itself,’ as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology,” urged Deneen. [1] “Hooray,” cries the Conservatives. But not so fast. If you take an even deeper look at Classic Liberalism, you see its aura within the foundation of every Democratic Republic. Liberalism was a response to pluralism in Europe and North America, where societies were at war over ideological beliefs, such as governance and religion. Its sages consisted of a few familiar names, Voltaire, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant, to name a few.

“While liberalism describes itself as mainly an effort to constrain and limit government, its earliest architects readily admitted that a powerful and often arbitrary government— acting upon “prerogative”—was necessary to secure the basic conditions of freedom and its requisite stability,” noted Deneen. [2] In other words, Liberalism was created to promote the freedom of the individual for the overbearing autocracy (modern term) of rulers and religious zealots. No government or religion has the power to control an individual’s consciousness. For Americans, these things are best expressed in the Bill of Rights, a founding document that conveys the freedom of individual rights and expression that shapes the rule of law.

A byproduct of self-expression is diversity, such as ideas, beliefs, ways of life, religious expression, cultures, and more. What undergirds Classic Liberalism is the ability to respect the diversity of self-expression.

However, what happens if self-expression becomes a perceived threat against another individual’s civil liberties? What happens when the entities that were meant to be protected under a Liberal nation become a threat to the nation itself, let alone other entities within the state? Deneen argued that the idea of Liberalism would ultimately usher in conditions for its demise. [3]

 Coincidentally, the “religious right” that are often at the forefront of limiting the individual rights of others—access to medical care, higher education, upward mobility, immigration, religious expression beyond Christianity, and the freedom of personal expression, no matter once race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality—may have forgotten that the Christianity of the 18th and 19th centuries were influencers on the cultivation of Liberal ideals. Take, for example, my tradition of Baptists, whose core values center around freedom of religion for all people (freedom of consciousness), the local autonomy of the church (individual rights), the priesthood of all believers (personal autonomy and consciousness), and the centrality of Scriptures (access and freedom to education, understanding, and speech).

Therefore, the idea of returning to Classic Liberalism should not feel like a threat to Christian values. Last time I checked the Gospels, Jesus sure did a lot of work cultivating the liberties of individuals within a society, promoting economic freedom, individual rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. Not to mention, Jesus appears to encourage a Kingdom of equity, equality, and inclusiveness for all of God’s children. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed provides a historical, philosophical, and political science analysis behind the founding idea of Democratic nations. In a time when culture and political wars rage, it might provide beneficial common ground for all sides to reexamine the motivation behind their end game.

[1] Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 3. 

[2] Ibid., 69. 

[3] Ibid., 90. 

About the Author


Andy Hale

Associate Executive Coordinator of CBF North Carolina, CBF Podcast Creator and Host, & Professional Coach

One response to “The Irony of Attacking Liberalism”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, you included so many good thoughts about classical liberalism that help to balance its understanding. I also appreciated your connection of liberalism to baptisitc beliefs and values. A question: you push back on “limiting rights.” Is there a boundary on the other side? To ask it another way, should there be any limitations to personal freedoms? Deneen argues for that, so I wonder if you agree or disagree with him on that.

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