A teleological vision of the good stomping on a human face

A teleological vision of the good stomping on a human face February 19, 2024

We need some kind of Baptist rapid-response team for stuff like this: “The Tensions Between Christianity, Capitalism, and Liberal Democracy: Part 2, A Relationship that is Tense and Conflictual.”

The team wouldn’t have to be only Baptists, I guess, since atheists, Jews, other religious minorities, John Courtenay Murray’s estate, and the expert jesters of the Satanic Temple would all have a stake in participating. Among others. But it’d be good to have a rotating squad of us to respond to this perennially frustrating business.

Team members, I imagine, would occasionally receive a text: “Somebody’s arguing that the First Amendment stifles religion. You’re up.” Or “Some poor soul seems to think the two clauses of the First Amendment are ‘in tension.’ Your turn.” Or “Hey, looks like yet another person has forgotten that the opposite of secular is sectarian. Wanna handle this one?”

If the team was big enough, each of us would only need to respond two or three times a week.

Here’s one part of the post linked above that would prompt that team to respond:

In liberal democracy, so long as you don’t harm your neighbor, you are free to believe anything you want and pursue happiness as you think best. In America the most visible example of this is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In light of this posture, political theologians on the religious right have made strong and cogent arguments that liberal democracy has pernicious and corrosive effects upon religious belief. To be sure, freedom of religion is lauded, but faith is hard to grow in the soil of liberalism. For my part, the most thoughtful critiques making this point take a cue from Alasdair MacIntyre and his book After Virtue. Specifically, the pursuit of flourishing for a nation, and among those within a nation, demands a teleological vision of the good. What determines a good human life? What makes for a good business? What is our vision of the common good? We need to ask and answer teleological questions about a host of pressing social issues. For example, are marriages good? Are families good? If so, should the state protect, promote and support these goods over against alternative lifeways?

Liberalism can’t answer any of these questions. The state is neutral toward questions of “the good,” leaving that up to its citizens to work out for themselves.

Ugh. Look, if you want “a teleological vision of the good” you shouldn’t be trying to order that from the catalog of the GPO in Pueblo, Colorado.

Yes, it’s true that in a liberal democracy, the state refrains from supplying you with “a teleological vision of the good.” That’s not something to complain about.

“What determines a good human life?” is a good question and a vitally important question. You don’t want your government supplying the answer to that question. Because any government providing an answer to that question will end up imposing an answer to that question.

Even on the very slim chance the government somehow initially got the answer mostly “right,” the establishment of that “right” answer would change it, alter it, and deform it. This bastardized, twisted version of that “right” answer would become the official answer, and any other answer — including the “right” one in its untwisted form — would be precluded.

“What determines a good human life?” is very much not a question you want the state to take an official, established, and mandatory position on.

In a liberal democracy, the state does not supply you with the answer to that question — which is to say the state refrains from imposing an answer to that question. This is one of the Good Things about liberal democracy.

But neither does that liberal democratic state prevent you from seeking and finding your own answer to that question. Nor does it interfere with you embracing, living, promoting, or sharing that answer. You are free to pursue that answer in your own life and you are free to persuade your fellow citizens of the truth, beauty, or goodness of that answer.

You’re even free to learn from them and from whatever reasons they may have for not finding your particular answer compelling, persuasive, or attractive. You are thus free to work with them to help one another refine and improve your various answers.

This allows for the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that you and your fellow citizens can, together, come up with a “vision of the good” that is much better than anything imagined by either Aristotle or his revivalists and cover bands. Better as in better for everybody — as in more true, more beautiful, more good. It might, for example, be a vision of the good that isn’t horrifically bad for women, slaves, and barbarians, and thus would allow for much more of that “human flourishing” we all claim to be seeking.

None of that is likely, or even possible, if we instead rely on some top-down establishment of the official, approved, and favored vision of the good.

If I seem a bit impatient in my response here it’s because I’ve been responding to this same anti-Baptist shtick about this alleged liberal democratic threat to real, true Christianity since the early ’90s.

Back in those days, people still remembered Yakov Smirnoff. The Cold War comic’s signature bit was helpful for illustrating some of the ought-to-be-obvious problems of these critiques of liberal democracy. This still works: When you encounter some ponderous essay about the inherent “conflict” or “tension” between religion and liberal democracy, just start reading it out loud in the voice of Yakov Smirnoff. “In liberal democracy you choose religion. In Soviet Russia, religion chooses you!

“The state is neutral toward questions of ‘the good,'” the post says, as if that were a bad thing. What’s bad about it? Well, this neutrality “[leaves] that up to its citizens to work out for themselves.”

Yep. We’re being left to govern ourselves. When in the course, we hold these truths, of, by, for, etc. That’s a feature, not a bug.

There’s a fundamental laziness to this critique of liberal democracy — not lazy thinking but actual laziness. Reading this in Yakov voice helps to highlight this as well. “In America, citizens have to govern selves. In Soviet Russia, government does it for you!

The free exercise of religion is, like all exercise, hard work. But, also like all exercise, no one else can do it for you.

That highlights one of my favorite things about the whole Aquinastotelian school of “virtue ethics.” It’s all about practice, practice, practice. That “teleological vision of the good”? That’s supposed to come from working at it like Tony Gwynn in the batting cage, keeping at it until your callouses bleed. So it’s more than a little strange to realize that the lingering legacy of MacIntyre’s attempt to revive virtue ethics is the complaint that self-government requires us to do such work ourselves.

As I mentioned above, back in the ’90s, critiquing liberal democracy by clout-skimming MacIntyre and Hauerwas was even trendier than flannel and goatees. But we’d all also just witnessed the democratic revolutions of 1989 and the ripple effects that followed in the former Soviet Union and South Africa. So those critiques of liberal democracy were usually offered in the spirit of that old line from Churchill: “The worst form of government, except for all other forms that have been tried.”

The current trend of rehashing all those critiques isn’t as constrained by the memory of that revolutionary time. Richard Beck’s post seems more like his attempt to summarize those critiques than his full endorsement of them, but many of the critics he’s summarizing do not share Churchill’s preference for liberal democracy over “all other forms.” Today, these rehashed recitals of those Grunge-era critiques are coming from Orbanists and “Catholic integralists” and Bartonites and dominionists and other authoritarians who explicitly seek the end of liberal democracy.

The language of Beck’s summary helps illustrate what it is these folks are hoping for:

What determines a good human life? … What is our vision of the common good? … Are marriages good? Are families good? …

Liberalism can’t answer any of these questions.

Liberalism can’t — but authoritarianism can! It can answer all of those questions so you won’t have to! It can answer all of those questions so you won’t be allowed to.

And so can Orbanism, and Trumpism, and Catholic integralism, and every other form of fascism.

Liberalism can’t tell you what determines a good human life, but the king or dictator or strongman can tell you that. And they will, as hard as they can.

The strongman will assign you a vision of the common good and tell you what kind of marriage and family are best for you, and thus what kind of marriage and family you will be permitted to have and required to have.

The strongman will not abandon you and leave you all alone with the job of governing yourselves. He causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive his teleological vision of the good. This calls for wisdom.

Or, put another way: Imagine a teleological vision of the good stomping on a human face. Forever.

Or, to be more explicitly Baptist about it, borrow the voice of a better comedian than Yakov:

You can’t spell “infant baptism” without “ants.”

To be fair, many of those pushing this Neo-Mahathirite MacIntyre-Hauerwas two-step are not calling for the end of liberal democracy and the establishment of some explicitly authoritarian religious autocracy. Most of them aren’t Adrian Vermeule. But their complaint with secular government is — wittingly or un- — a call for sectarian government, which is a terrible idea with a monstrously high body count.

I’m generally less flabbergasted by this stuff when it comes from Latin-Mass weirdoes or from ultra-Reformed dudes or those from some other tradition that still misses the Good Old Days of pre-Enlightenment sectarian government and still clings to the hope that the First Amendment is just a fad that’ll fade away one of these days. It’s when I see this stuff coming from Baptist-y and Anabaptist-y sources that my flabber really gets gasted.

But this has already gone on too long, so we’ll pick this up again with a Part 2.




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