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Saving Liberalism from Itself

Review of: Daniel J. Mahoney, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (ISI, 2010), ISBN: 978-1935191001. Hardback, 208 pages; $26.95.

When asked why he remained a liberal, albeit a conservative one, the late Richard John Neuhaus typically responded that liberalism, despite its flaws, offered the only decent politics in the modern world. First Things, the journal he founded, was dedicated to the proposition that while liberalism was a good, neither it nor any other politics was really one of the "first things." In The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, Daniel J. Mahoney, a political philosopher at Assumption College, follows in this tradition of qualified approval of a non-dogmatic "conservative liberalism" combined with a healthy awareness that it is not a self-sustaining project.

Part warning and part prescription, Mahoney's book, which bears the subtitle "Defending Democracy Against its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends," attempts to diagnose what has gone wrong, as too many ostensibly liberal Western nations have gently floated into what Tocqueville called "tutelary" or "soft" despotism while some, like France in 1968, nearly lurched into hard despotism. Under modernity, Mahoney argues, liberty is too often reduced to "a vague and empty affirmation of equality and individual and collective autonomy" that "is inevitably destructive of those 'contents of life'—religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship—that enrich human existence and give meaning and purpose to human freedom." The result of pursuing the reductive notion of liberty without the "contents of life," including a healthy appreciation for legitimate authority, is liberty's opposite. Radical individualism puts men at the mercy of the impersonal "schoolmaster state." Mahoney is not ready to say, even of France's "excessively administered state and society," that tutelary despotism has arrived. But the implication is that it pushes hard at the gates— and not just those of Paris. In his chapter on the events of 1968, Mahoney spells out the warning signs present in all the western nations:

The relentless assault on the principle of authority proceeds apace. This process is so regularized that we have ceased to notice or appreciate its truly revolutionary character. Our political orders are bereft of statesmanship, the family is a shell of its former self, and influential currents within the churches no longer know how to differentiate between the sublime demands of Christian charity and demagogic appeals to democratic humanitarianism.

In isolation, a quotation such as the preceding might place Mahoney too much within the hell-in-a-handbasket school of analysis. Yet a particular delight of Mahoney's work is his attempt to fulfill Raymond Aron's goal of "equity" which is "a truly balanced approach to political and historical understanding." Mahoney defends the democratic instinct not simply because he believes it an unstoppable force over the last five centuries, but because it bears within it an important truth. Liberty is a good that is necessary for the full thriving of humans. Even the imbalanced notion of liberty as an ideological "liberation" or "equality" has brought some good to the western nations. But without a richer notion of what Tocqueville called "the art of liberty," liberalism cannot be saved from itself: the goods it brought will perish with it.

While Mahoney uses "democracy" and "liberal order" somewhat interchangeably, he is clear that what should be emphasized are "constitutionalism and the rule of law" which remain "the indispensable foundations . . . of a free and civilized political order." The art of liberty cannot be reduced to electoral democracy. In this light, one reads the fine chapter, "Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy," which manages to evaluate the foreign policy doctrine and practice of President Bush from a perspective neither partisan nor infected by Bush derangement syndrome.

Mahoney acknowledges that Bush's immediate and long-term response to 9/11 showed a "tough-mindedness" that was rooted in a "clear-sighted recognition of Good and Evil" and issued in an "overall project [that] is informed by a strong dose of realism and contains no small elements of daring and moral nobility." Yet the enunciations of the Bush doctrine, particularly in the 2005 second inaugural address, tended toward a notion of liberty that seemed to involve only democratic processes and ignored the "cultural prerequisites of democratic self-government." While the policy instincts of the administration showed greater prudence than did the rhetoric, Mahoney clearly scores Bush rhetoric for its advocacy of democracy and not a fuller concept of constitutional government. Such advocacy is dangerous in a world in which "fledgling democracies" have more often been the conduits for totalitarianism than have authoritarian regimes like the Islamic states and territories that are currently challenging the West.

It is clear from such treatments of doctrine, rhetoric, and action that Mahoney values statesmanship as something a democratic age needs, but often pretends to be able to forego. Mahoney thus devotes an entire chapter to the question of statesmanship, singling out Charles de Gaulle (to whom Mahoney has devoted a previous book) and Winston Churchill as preeminent modern friends of democracy "precisely because they were willing to confront its limitations, and to do what is possible to address them within the bounds of prudence and decency." Societies need not only reminders of the greatness possible for all human beings, but leadership which will "sustain" them in crises which reveal democracy's weakness in inspiring greatness to surmount difficulties. Yet the statesman can only do so much if the ingredients needed for the art of liberty are lacking. And here we come to the heart of Mahoney's book, which is ultimately religious.

Churchill is a great statesman not only because he defended the need for military strength and constitutional law, but because Churchill defended the "dual patrimony" of liberal democracy and Christian ethics. Without Jewish and Christian roots, modern constitutional governments would not have taken the shape they did. Without living religion, it is not clear that the art of liberty can survive. Mahoney endorses Solzhenitsyn's diagnosis of the modern crisis as one of "rationalistic humanism" in which the keys of "self-limitation" (personal and political) and deference to "the Creator of the universe" are necessary if the modern west is not to spawn even more destructive and totalitarian regimes than before.


The Statue of Liberty located in New York Harbor.

Mahoney's long second chapter, "Beyond Nihilism: Religion, Liberty, and the Art of Mediation," is the most important chapter of the book. In it, Mahoney notes, following Pierre Manent, that modern philosophical liberalism has "next to nothing to say about weaving community and liberty together." Even the American founders had a weak conception of what they were doing, working with a "'hodge-podge anthropology' that drew unevenly upon classical and Christian wisdom . . . and Enlightenment presuppositions." This mixture, though making a "fruitful tension" was also "an unstable mixture likely to decay as time went on." (One is reminded of Neuhaus's assessment of Leo Strauss' claim that the American founders' principles were "low but solid": "Perhaps too low, not solid enough.") No, what made the American foundation strong was the fact that, as Tocqueville put it, Americans understood that self-government "under God and the law" was very different from the "monstrous illusion that humans have the right 'to deify and worship themselves.'"

Perhaps it is merely an irony, or perhaps a strategy, but many of Mahoney's model statesmen and political philosophers, like Churchill ("a pagan through and through"), Tocqueville (a rather skeptical Christian), and Raymond Aron (a secular Jew) were not religious in any orthodox sense. Their bare-bones approaches to conserving what is best in Western history may not be adequate, but they are certainly helpful. Though he uses some of them frequently (like Pierre Manent and Solzhenitsyn), Mahoney might have covered more seriously religious figures. In his review of the book in National Review, Anthony Daniels noted that great-souled secular men who limit themselves are rarities, and, that absent a religious revival, it seems difficult to see any way out of our cultural fix. Yet I think Mahoney hints at some answers.

First, Mahoney appeals to the strength of a Catholic "analogical" approach to theology with a strong defense of natural law. In the United States at least, such a broad approach has increasingly drawn adherents not just among Catholics themselves, but from the Evangelical and Orthodox, and even Jewish, worlds in the arena of political philosophy and advocacy. (Some might say more from those worlds than from the Catholic.) While many commentators want to declare the culture wars over, Mahoney, though clear-eyed, doesn't see traditional believers as defeated.

Second, Mahoney calls for a healthy dose of Augustinianism among Christian citizens and thinkers. Though Catholic, he notes that Catholic thinkers from Jacques Maritain to Pope John Paul II have been sometimes "too eager to argue for the essential compatibility of Christianity and democracy rather than putting the stress on the need for a prudential accommodation between the Church and liberal order." Mahoney sees in Benedict XVI's Augustinian approach to Christianity and democracy a healthier approach that is, one notes, also ecumenically attractive.

Mahoney does not provide a list of "solutions" to our crises. But no permanent political or cultural solutions exist; Mahoney's "plan" to save liberalism is the perennial one: we all must cultivate the art of liberty.

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN).