The failure of liberal politics is caused by the success of identity politics. If liberals want to win again, they will need to articulate a shared vision of the future grounded in their shared identity as American citizens. To do that, liberals must first reject the divisive and ultimately apolitical vision of the cultural left, which is grounded in personal identities. Or so argues Mark Lilla in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (HarperCollins, $24.99, 143 pp.).
How did the left lose its mojo? Lilla’s account is a story in two chapters. Chapter 1 is the “The Roosevelt Dispensation.” From the 1930s through the 1970s, the dominant vision in American politics was a progressive vision of shared interests symbolized by two shaking hands. “Until the 1960s,” he claims, “those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities, and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors.”
Chapter 2 is called “The Reagan Dispensation.” During this era, the dominant vision was a conservative one focused on individual interests. Now, progressive activists were mostly formed on college and university campuses. They were increasingly concerned with individual identity based on gender, race, and sex. They emphasized difference and diversity rather than commonality and unity. Their symbol was a beam of light refracted through a prism.
Then came the great disruptor, Donald J. Trump. On Lilla’s reading, the Trump election is best understood as a backlash against the “political correctness” of the cultural left that currently dominates campus politics. Unless American liberals are able to articulate a new vision, he warns—one based on a shared identity of democratic citizenship—the next chapter of our story may well be written by a coalition of white nationalists and religious conservatives.
Inevitably perhaps, there’s an awful lot missing from Lilla’s reading of contemporary history—religion, for one thing. Lilla is more attuned to the importance of religion than most commentators. Still, he says astonishingly little about the rise of religious conservatism and next to nothing about the decline of liberal Protestantism. The latter is my subject here.
For most of American history, liberal politics has been entangled with liberal religion. The American Revolution might not have succeeded without the “black regiments”—the liberal pastors who so vocally supported it. And chattel slavery would surely not have ended as soon as it did without vociferous agitation by Protestant abolitionists from the Quakers on.
Liberal politics continued to draw inspiration from liberal Protestantism for much of the twentieth century too. Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Frances Perkins—the list of twentieth-century liberals formed in America’s mainline congregations, denominational colleges, and Protestant seminaries goes on and on. No liberal Protestants, no “Roosevelt dispensation”!
This is not to deny the enormous contributions of Jewish and Catholic intellectuals and activists such as Abraham Joshua Heschel or “Monsignor New Deal,” John A. Ryan. It is merely to insist on the enormous demographic and cultural weight of the Protestant establishment for much of American history. For better or worse—and usually both—American political culture bears a distinctly Protestant imprint.
This is true a fortiori of secular progressivism, which is, in many respects, a secularized continuation of liberal Protestantism. Take the idea of progress itself. American liberals like to trace it to the Enlightenment. But this misreads American history. (Not to mention the Enlightenment itself, which was not as monolithically secular as some of its interpreters would have us believe.) By the nineteenth century, most liberal Protestants had become “postmillennialists.” They believed that the establishment of the Kingdom of God would precede the Second Coming of Christ, and that America’s Protestant churches had been tasked with the establishing. This was the theological source of their reformist and missionary fervor. In many respects, secular progressives are their contemporary inheritors. Like their Protestant forbears, they believe that social movements and popular education can deliver the world from evil and establish the reign of truth and justice on earth.
Of course there are also important discontinuities between liberal Protestantism and secular progressivism. Liberal Protestant fervor was often (if not always) tempered by a deep awareness of the moral and intellectual limitations of a fallen humanity, an awareness derived from the Augustinian understanding of original sin and passed on through the “total depravity” doctrine of orthodox Calvinism. And when liberal Protestants forgot this, there were always prophetic voices to remind them—the voices of Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., for instance. But these voices have become fewer and quieter. Salvation slowly gave way to self-actualization. The old denominational colleges were converted into secular meritocracies. Where the brightest are continually told that they are also the best, and therefore also the most deserving, who or what is left to temper the old moral fervor? For that, most assuredly, lives on in these secularized settings. One worries that secular progressives have retained the worst of liberal Protestantism—a naïve philosophy of history—while rejecting the best—an ethos of chastened humility.
Not that “sin” and “confession” have entirely disappeared from post-Protestant progressivism. But today, the original sin is “white privilege,” and conversion requires confession. To be “woke” is to “own” one’s privilege—repeatedly and before one’s peers. Those who fail to do so run the risk of excommunication, at least in the stricter sects of secular progressivism. Though today, one’s congregation is one’s “community,” however defined: one’s school or social circle or Instagram feed. To his credit, Lilla is one of the few academic observers who sees this subterranean connection between the evangelical awakenings of yesteryear and the political awakenings of today.