Liberalism’s Soul

Way back in 1997, Peter Berkowitz published a review of David Walsh’s The Growth of the Liberal Soul. It’s a notable title, since one of the charges of post-liberals is that liberalism has no soul. But Walsh’s thesis is worth revisiting now that there is widespread questioning of the liberal project.

Berkowitz sums up part of Walsh’s explanation of the “existential appeal” of liberalism. That appeals is rooted in: “liberal tradition’s ability to give political expression to the principle or moral belief, widely shared among modern men and women, that the individual is sacred, the unique bearer of a fundamental human dignity. Walsh sees this belief as part of the Christian heritage of the West—and again, he is by no means the first to view the liberal tradition as in considerable measure a secular and political development of Christian morality. But he is not simply siding with those conservatives who argue that the secularization of Christianity in liberalism has betrayed its patrimony and is rapidly depleting its accumulated moral capital. Rather, Walsh sees in the liberal tradition a distinctive development and deepening on the political plane of the Christian belief in the transcendent dignity of the human being; but he sees that this development and deepening have come to endanger liberalism’s genuine achievements by cutting the liberal spirit off from the sources that sustain it.

Berkowitz argues that the erosion of this existential core or “animating spirit” is the center of contemporary political upheavals: “When Christian belief was strong and widely shared, when an unspoken and deeply felt moral consensus about the sanctity of the individual prevailed, liberal regimes could function quite well without a fine-grained articulation of the goodness of freedom. But when these sustaining beliefs are shaken or corroded, articulating the moral sources of the liberal spirit takes on a new urgency.”

That articulation has not been accomplished, with the result that “ethos of liberal neutrality seems to have at last forced liberalism to become neutral regarding its own goodness. The liberal longing for increasingly comprehensive kinds of freedom has come to threaten the respect for limits and order that are freedom’s precondition.”

All this raises the critical questions: Can liberalism survive when its Christian foundations are eroded? And, if liberalism now rests on a foundation that is literally nihil, is it worth preserving?


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  • Mark

    Do you truly believe that atheists, agnostics, or even non-Christians don’t have a shared sense of human dignity? It seems more likely that human cultures had a moral code to preserve order and these shared beliefs were transferred to religion when they wrote scripture.