The Death of the Liberals is killing us

In chapter 1 of his book Death of Liberal Class, Chris Hedges sketches both the height of the Liberal era in the 19th century and its cataclysmic implosion with the arrival of World War in the 20th. The disillusionment of human evil, aggression, and suffering deflated the optimism of innate human goodness and inevitable progress that Liberalism is founded upon.

To understand the profound impact of Liberalism’s demise, it helps to make sure one understands the difference between Classical Liberalism and it’s contemporary milquetoast descent that slinks around in straw-man form on our 24 hours news cycle.

Hedges explains (pp. 6-7) “Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. … (It) has, the philosopher John Gray writes, four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognizable identity. It is :

  • individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity;
  • egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status;
  • universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species;
  • and meliorist, in that it asserts the openended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life

Both John Cobb (Mainline)  and Clayton Crockett (Radical Political Theology) use very similar formulations in their recent Homebrewed  podcasts. Cobb, by focusing on the demise of the Mainline and Crocket, by focusing on the Evangelical and Religious Right, articulate the monumental shift in the religious-political landscape in the past century.

The Mainline denominations are in a collapse narrative and it makes perfect sense why when one examines both the way liberal thought partnered with power in the 20th Century and the way that conducted itself (largely) within the shifting landscape of post-war realities at home and globalization abroad.

“In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite. But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims…

The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.”  (pp. 9-10)

We talked yesterday about the fictitious nature of the supposed Left-Right spectrum.  For those of us who participate in christ centered communities and organizations, what does this mean?  While incomplete, here is my little experiment to come up with a game-plan for a start.

  1. We stop using the label ‘Liberal’ generically for anything that is not Conservative… especially to be dismissive.  Liberal is a very specific ethical  framework and it takes quite a commitment to liberal. It is not a default position.
  2. We disavow the left-right , conservative-liberal split as farcical. It doesn’t exist. Obama is a Centrist Democrat. Romney is a Centrist Republican. Any idea that Obama is a radical is ridiculous.* We repent of lazy language & thought.
  3. We wake up as the church that the role the Liberals used to play in the system does not function. There is no moderating or buffering presence to bring a corrective to the system. Thus, participating in the system as-it-now-exists will not fix the system. The corporate hold over every aspect of our political system is pervasive.
  4. We step up as the church in the revelation that government is not going to fulfill the expectation to
  • bring good news to the poor (Economy)
  • restore sight to the blind (Medical)
  • release to the captive  (Legal)
  • lift up the broken hearted (Compassion)

The church can do these things! We have deferred to the political system for too long. We have outsourced our responsibility to society but now live with the remains of the bloated carcass Christendom. With the death of the liberal class resistance to corporate rule and unchecked consumerism is impotent. The Citizen’s United ruling is just one step on long trail … but we know where it leads.

There are churches in every community and there may be no greater existing potential than us! **  I know it sounds dreamy, but in the rest of this series I want to flesh it out. By the end, it might not seem as far-fetched as it does right now.

– Bo Sanders

 

*Wall Street campaign funding, legalizing assassination, and Guantanamo Bay are your first 3 hints.
**  The danger of course is that we keep voting based on two issues while turning a blind eye to  corporate rule, environmental deregulation, and perpetual war.

  

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17 comments
Cara
Cara

Great conversation here! I have to agree with dmfs first post, and Jason's questions started me thinking as well. I think there is another disconnect here- hopefully we don't make the mistake of forming another false spectrum of church on one side and government on the other. I wonder if the relationship between church and state, and what 'separation' actually means vs. what it means culturally to us today would be another great post for you down this line Bo?! Perhaps the main goal of the founding fathers to establish a government and church separate from each other was so that they would each have only authority on their own turf rather than being false representatives of each other as the Roman Catholic church was in the days before the Reformation. A new vision of practice could include an accountability relationship- both the church and government challenging each other and bringing awareness to certain unethical or immoral practices prevalent in society and the system at large. Rather than avoiding having anything to do with each other, there is a healthy way (some day maybe) for church and state to interact with each other, support each other and correct each other. I agree mostly about your 20% Bo, but what would you say about left and right division not just within politics, but church? how they antagonize each other and marginalize each other. The 'left' say they are fulfilling those goals of social justice that they accuse the 'right' of forgetting, and the right accuses the left on turning its back on the authority of scripture and Christian morality. I would say it depends on which 'Church' you are looking at- if you are looking at the Anabaptist church (Quakers, Mennonites, etc.) then they are def. trying to fulfill the goals of social justice even if they fail in following through completely.

Fred Tripp
Fred Tripp

Bo The death of all who disagree with the power that is. Is what is happening to our world on all levels. The church has taken the 5th. If they would talk from the bully pulpit and preach right and wrong I might go back to church. I am tired of both side's We as a people need to demand that we are one people under God. One God and one earth. We all bleed red. All groverments are bought and paid for before they ever take the oath. We are a Global world and need Global idea's. All Churches need one simple message We all are humans trying to live in a hell that is man made. Some common Sense would go a long long way. I am so sick and tired of war and hate

Jason
Jason

Also, sorry I wasn't very brief :)

Jason
Jason

Thanks for the quick response, Bo. A) Then the majority of my "beef" is with Hedges. However, whether Hedges is completely right or completely wrong, the theology doesn't change. How it happens physically might changes, but not the theology. That was my issue and therefore my confusion. You could have typed a note from Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin or one from Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry and the theology would have been the same, and our response would need to be the same...do what the Bible says. The argument as stated allows the Church to continue to defer if Government does do the job, and both politically and theologically that has consequences. B) I've only seen a couple of your posts as I came here from a FB link from someone who agreed completely with your post. So, I can't speak to what's been said other than these posts. However, it seems to me that at least in this post and the one linked to it, that saying there is no left and right is an oversimplification. Of course there's cross over and of course it's not a perfect dichotomy, but there are clear political differences that can easily be termed "left" and "right." In some ways, President Obama is a radical leftist, in some ways, he's clearly not. As it regards the other post, the Tea Party and the Occupiers do have many of the same goals, but their ways to fix the problems and the methods to induce change are different, and can also be termed "left" and "right." Leaving it at a simple linear spectrum doesn't fit, but in my opinion ignoring that it exists doesn't help either. (Side note, corporate greed would instantly end as a driving force if people in power, and out of power, weren't greedy themselves. Just about everyone wants what they can get whether it be money or power or both. I think corporations and their freedom isn't the problem and killing their freedom is a slippery slope I don't want to be on.) C) No, I'm not missing that. I totally agree that it's not happening. I totally agree that it's the Church's responsibility and with your two fold answer to my question. Where Hedges and I might disagree is the amount of responsibility government has, but you and I have no disagreement on the responsibility of the Church. I think the better argument is the one you just made. The Church has abdicated it's responsibility in many areas (scientific research since Darwin, caring for the poor since welfare, etc...) and it's time to stop ignoring our God given mandates. Besides, there's a huge opportunity here for us to radically impact the world, just by doing what we should be doing anyway. Cheers!

Jason
Jason

Help me out, Bo. Maybe, I'm simply not as smart as you all, or maybe I just don't read enough, but what is the reason for the first 80% of your post as it impacts the bottom 20%. Never mind the fact that I don't fully agree with you, but that's mostly because I think you do exactly what you accuse others of doing (i.e. simplify the other position and take a stand against it). My point is the theological one. What if Government was successfully living up to the four expectations you describe, does that absolve the Church of doing its part or participating in making sure those expectations are met? Just about nobody on any side of a political spectrum or circle or however you choose to describe it, wants people sick/hungry/poor/weak/etc... What differs politically, is how it gets done (i.e. in simple terms, giving people freedom to take care of themselves, or taking care of things for them). What shouldn't be impacted is the Biblical commands to "do to the least of these" as if they were Christ Himself, right? What am I missing?

dmf
dmf

Bo, I'm certainly against re-entrenchment and "silos" but surely there are forms of the new monasticism that are less regressive, no? we should avoid all nostalgia (including that of the good old lefty days that frankly never where). I can see the attraction of a kind of Dorothy Day workers utopia but this tends to underestimate the powers and seductions of large scale systems and the need for very intensive and reflexive practices/habits to resist back-sliding into using people as means to and end. So I would say that the how is an open question but we know from history that just setting out abstract principles/values has never been the answer. Churches used to benefit from being attached to existing communities that frankly no longer exist (for better or worse) and so need to be built, but can only come out of shared practices and mutual commitments, just having common ends won't do we need better means and that can only happen locally and on small scales (think about how many people you can really come to know in the way that the pastoral question "how is it with your soul?" has any more meaning that when we greet someone on the street with "how are you?")

joe carson
joe carson

Hi Bo, There is no collective and intentional Christian influence in any secular profession because of fear/greed - "love of money is root of all evil." Christian religious professionals take no exception to it lack, also out of fear/greed, so status quo remains status quo enabling the corporate power grab. Bo, I am NOT the norm - I actually prevailed severa times as a federal whistleblower. Corporations want a corrupt/dysfuctional federal civil service - easier for them to "capture" (i.e. "regulatory capture") and if the gov't agencies are seen as dysfunctional/corrupt, the people will give up on thinking they could be a useful too to protect and advance the common good. The lack of a organized and intentional Christian "salt and light" influence in medical, engineering, legal, financial, etc professions is just what the corporations want - so Christians in those professions shun being such - and, no, Bo, you have not called this out, explicitly. But I appreciate your considering my point of view. Joe

joe carson
joe carson

Hi Bo, check out www.OccupyEPA.com I'm on planning committee and will be speaking about "broken covenant" of federal civil service. But my critique of your approach remains - you dare not rock boats about how privileged Christians make a dollar via their status as members of recognized professions in advancing corporate interests, suborning their profession's code of ethics in doing so - too radioactive to a Christian religious professional's economic well-being.. Joe Carson

dmf
dmf

hey Bo, I too think that there is a role for the church to regain its mission in the world flattened economy of the US but I don't think it will be in the role that the govt has filled by trying to grow the pie but rather in teaching disciples how to live a life of meaning with less, and I imagine that this will not be a popular position but surely better than being a cargo cult in the service of oligarchies. have you read Hauerwas' Resident Aliens book? his nostalgic orthodoxy aside I think that he is right on that the only way to bring about such a change is to lead by example and that the difficulty of such efforts will not lend itself to massive "growth" in terms of filling seats/coffers, so it will take a real gestalt shift in consciousness

Mich
Mich

Bo, Im with you. It is ridiculous that the Right paints Obama as a "liberal" in the pejorative sense. He's raised more Wall St money than even Romney! Hedges is right on and he comes from a Progressive Christian background--Harvard divinity school. Both Republicans and Democrats are merely bagmen for the Corporatocracy and it's getting worse. I think it is time for the Church to step up--there are millions of people, the majority of the US population--desperate for the Good News of the Gospel. That there is a another way, that our so called elites have sold us down the drain and it is up to us to forge a new community base on love of God and neighbor. I think most Americans experience a profound disconnect when the watch DC politicians and listen to the main stream media whether it's CBS, CNN or Fox news. PS--Im addicted to HBC podcast! Keep up the good work!

Tad DeLay
Tad DeLay

I'm interested to hear more about the doing away with the left-right spectrum (in theory or practice?) particularly since you are using Crockett. In "Radical Political Theology" Crockett really helped me conceptualize Liberalism by arguing that in theory, with it's dual affirmations of free market economy and individual rights, Liberalism is the precise center of the left-right spectrum. In fact, his whole argument for why liberalism fails is that in practice, because free market economy trumps personal rights, liberalism ends up conceding too much ground to the right wing. That seems to be why he's using a theological framework to hopefully swing the political discourse back to the left of center (he calls himself a liberal, so I imagine he's hoping for a middle ground between center (Liberalism) and Left. I hope that makes sense. I'm just wondering why the framework needs to be thrown out when you are using "RPT" which explicitly relies on that same left-right framework.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Mr. Tripp, I have no idea who you are but you are one of my new favorite people. God bless you sir. God bless you. I will use this on tomorrow's TNT show. Thank you for being so honest. I can not tell you how refreshing it is to hear this kind of honesty. -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Jason, it doesn't seem to me that we are saying entirely different things. We are just coming at from different ways. You are emphasizing that even if the liberals (& government) WERE doing their job, the church still has responsibility/mandate. I am simply saying that because they are NOT (and here we agree) that the church is more needed & more capable to step up and step in. the other place of disagreement was on the fictitious nature of the Left/Right split. The only thing I would say is that I handled my perspective in a post earlier last week (Bending the Spectrum) and think you would be wise to abandon even your cursory use of that language (like you used in the Obama point).You make a good point and actually illustrate what I am saying : the distinction is just about useless and at minimum is unclear, unhelpful and inconsistent. So why not just leave it behind? thanks for your thoughtful response -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Jason, thanks for taking the time to write in and for being respectful in disagreement. I really appreciate that. Really. I will try to be clear while being succinct! a) The first 80% is Chris Hedges. The bottom 20% is me. The series is my interacting with his work and then asking "if he is right, what does that mean for doing theology?" b) If you think that I have simplified the other position and then simply taken a stand against it, then you have indeed missed my project. I move against both foundationalism and dualism every post of everyday (although I do rest from my labors on Sunday) c) What you are missing is that it is not happening. The poor/sick/hungry/weak/ etc. are not being taken care of. Not by the right, the left or the church. That is what you are missing. Let me be clear: you ask "what if Government was successfully living up to the four expectations you describe, does that absolve the Church of doing its part or participating in making sure those expectations are met?" and the answer is two fold: 1) No. The church has a mission that is not determined by that. 2) but that in NOT the case and thus the church has an opportunity it has too long deferred under the expectations of Christendom to a marriage of state/church does that help Jason? I would love to hear back from ya. It I am not being clear- I need to understand where I the confusion is coming from. sincerely -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Joe - I will look into your link and I look forward to finding out more. But I am a little confused by your next point. Joe, your critique of my approach - IS MY APPROACH. You are saying what I am saying. I am just more measured/diplomatic that you might want me to be ;) but that IS what I am saying! -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

dmf, I have had the unfortunate experience to be a fan of Hauerwas without knowing anything about the man or his fruit/expression. I read Hauerwas and absolutely LOVED what he said. Then I can into a PhD program and was accosted by the reality - not of his ideas (which I still love) but by the inevitable conversation about how such an approach looks in practice... suffice to say, I was shocked to learn of the resulting Wittgensteinian/Lindbeckian language games / retreat into ecclesiastical silos. But yes... I love his words and ideas -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

I'm not using Crockett, I am only saying that Crockett uses a similar definition of Liberal. I am not endorsing RPT as my framework... but if I did then I would highlight that his 'spectrum' has 3 instead of the ingrained 2. But, like I said, I am not using Crockett. ;) sorry for the confusion -Bo