The title of Christopher J. Insole’s audacious book is no lie: The Politics of Human Frailty really is “A Theological Defense of Political Liberalism.” An academic theologian writing from within the Anglican tradition, Insole seeks to establish a theological justification for what he calls “political” liberalism and, just as important, to find in that liberalism a corrective to certain kinds of theological error.

Attempts to reconcile religion and liberalism are nothing new. How that is accomplished, though, depends on the type of liberalism being considered. For example, many who voted recently in France and the Netherlands against the European Union Constitution feared it was too “liberal.” What they meant by “liberal,” though, was different from the Republican Party’s use of the term. They feared the economic liberalism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: deregulated markets and a diminished welfare state. That brand of liberalism has a long pedigree in neoclassical economics and an influential ideological exponent in Friedrich Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom. It is obviously different from the social democratic liberalism that inspired the policies economic liberals would dismantle. Social democratic liberalism emphasizes reduction of inequality, creation of a social safety net, and balancing the powers of capital and labor, and it is not afraid to use the state to achieve those ends. That liberalism was not only the basis of the postwar European welfare states, but animated the New Deal and the Great Society in the United States, and survives in many government programs and policies that have withstood conservative attack for the past quarter-century.

Different as those two types of liberalism may be, each has found a theological justification. Hayek, for example, is one of the inspirations for Michael Novak’s (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism) theological encomia to the free market and the business corporation as manifestations of God’s grace. For Novak, economic liberty is the sine qua non for all forms of liberty and for economic progress, and is the key to his religious conception of human dignity. Conversely, the ideology of the European welfare state has its roots deep in the communitarian heart of Catholic social thought. Even in the United States, New Deal economic policies created an unprecedented alliance between the Catholic Church and liberals, personified in the “Right Reverend New Dealer,” Msgr. John A. Ryan. There is thus a lively debate not over whether those liberalisms can have a theological justification at all, but also which liberalism has the best theological justification.

Those liberalisms, though, do not exhaust the catalog of possibilities. Most of the tension between liberalism and religion today has been created by the clash between so-called lifestyle liberalism and conservative social values. This newer strand of liberalism is less concerned with economics and politics as such; its main preoccupation is maintaining the autonomy of the individual in all forms of social relations, particularly with respect to sexuality, gender status, personal self-expression, end-of-life questions, and responsibility to established authority.

The political debate over liberalism of this sort is obviously also a philosophical debate, specifically a debate about ontology—about the nature of the human being. It is the ontology of this liberalism (which Insole calls “crusading liberalism”) that has given it a bad name in theological circles. Drawing on both Protestant and Catholic sources, Insole describes a virtual consensus among theologians that the philosophical foundation of liberalism “is based upon an illusory human subject who constructs order and denies transcendence.” That human subject, furthermore, is driven by the individual will, engendering a “fetish for freedom of choice and the removal of all impediments to human liberty,” and emptying the concept of liberty “of any substantial historical, traditional, or philosophical content.” Values and meaning are determined by the will; ethics are entirely a matter of individual construction. As a result, the “voluntaristic meta-ethic fosters a destructive individualism and social atomism.” This set of assumptions, the consensus holds, supports a pseudo-messianic belief in progress, and constitutes a secular religion of its own “masquerading as a secular, timeless, and neutral framework.” Theology’s responsibility, in this view, is to propose an alternative view of the ontology of the human subject and to constitute the church as a counterculture.

After summarizing this theological consensus, Insole concedes that “these theologians are not wrong about liberalism.” Then he insists that they “are not right about it either.” What they miss, he argues, is a strand of liberalism that the political philosopher John Rawls labeled “political liberalism,” which Insole describes as “the conviction that politics is ordered toward peaceful coexistence...and the preservation of the liberties of the individual within a pluralistic and tolerant framework, rather than a search for truth (religious or otherwise), perfection, and unity.” Continuing, Insole says:

The crucial ambition of this sort of “political liberalism” is a refusal to allow public power to enforce on society a substantial and comprehensive conception of the good; driven as it is by its central passion for the liberties of individuals and above the enthusiasms of other individuals or collectivities. Political authority is wielded on behalf of the people it protects, and is derived ultimately from their consent.

Political liberalism, Insole argues further, does not necessarily share the more offensive characteristics of “crusading liberalism.” Instead, political liberalism is consistent with a theological sense of our fallen nature, and of “the frailty and limitations of individuals and a sense of the difficulty and dangers of discerning and imposing order given our fallen and complex condition.” The tolerance characteristic of political liberalism is thus not relativism, but an appreciation of fallen humanity’s difficulty in discerning the “given and created order.” Political liberalism’s sense of the contingent and provisional nature of political authority expresses an Augustinian understanding of the radical distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. Similarly, its repudiation of messianic political religions, and of fantasies about the progress of history, “is rooted in an Augustinian sense of the complexity and falleness of history.”

Insole’s hero is Edmund Burke, usually thought of as a conservative because of his disdain for the French Revolution, and his sense of the importance of tradition, custom, and history. Burke’s liberalism resides, Insole argues, in his principled resistance to Britain’s arbitrary rule in America and India, his commitment to religious tolerance, and his insistence on the protection of individual liberties. But the crucial aspect of Burke’s liberalism for Insole is its theological dimension. Burke’s belief in an eternal natural law is tempered by his awareness of fallen man’s limited capacity to discern the divine order, and his consequent dependence on history, tradition, and local custom to establish a temporal order that should never be confused with the divine order. For Burke, it is precisely because humans are fallen that power should be constrained, religious differences tolerated, compassion preserved, and metaphysical generalization, political extremism, and messianic progressivism avoided. Burke’s liberalism and his theology are thus fused, showing, Insole concludes, that political liberalism can have a theological justification.

Insole’s major focus for theological rehabilitation is the canonical liberal philosopher Rawls, quoted above, a favorite whipping boy of many religious thinkers. Insole argues that Rawls is less hostile to religious discourse in the public square than is often assumed. More important, pluralism, tolerance, the need for a common ground of discourse, and the state’s limited, nonperfectible function—central Rawlsian concepts—are for Insole well grounded theologically.

Insole also has villains: Puritans, the contemporary Radical Orthodoxy movement of theologian John Milbank and others, and George W. Bush. This seems an odd grouping, but Insole convincingly links them through their common, or at least related theological error. He compares the Puritans’ theocratic vision of the City on the Hill to a theocratic tendency in Radical Orthodoxy in which the desire to unite “love and power” in overcoming secular nihilism seems to demand a new fusion of church and state. He also catches more than a whiff of Puritanism in Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric invoking an almost Manichean distinction between good and evil, an extreme confidence in his ability to discern the difference between the two, and unshakable belief in America as the elect chosen to lead the struggle against evil. The common error in all these, Insole argues, is a theological hubris: the explicit or implicit linkage of the visible church with the invisible church and the confusion of the temporal with the spiritual. The necessary corrective, he argues, is a political liberalism informed by a religious sense of man’s broken nature, a “politics of frailty” premised on tolerance and inclusiveness.

Convincing as Insole may be in identifying a theological justification for political liberalism, he really does not offer a way out of the present tension between “liberalism” and “religion” in American politics and culture. Liberalism is the dominant conceptual and political framework of the Western world, and even the sharpest disagreements over culture, morality, and power take place within it. Insole is helpful in reminding us that we must sustain political liberalism, not only as a political matter, but as a way of keeping faith with a Christian understanding of human ontology. It is a gentle and reassuring vision, but it does not really help us untangle—or avoid—the struggle between what he called a “crusading liberalism” and those religious voices deeply at odds with modern culture. That may not have been Insole’s goal, but it should be someone’s.


This review is funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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Published in the 2005-09-23 issue: View Contents
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