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The Limits of Liberal Democracy: Politics and Religion at the End of Modernity

Scott H. Moore
Published by interVarsity Press in 2009

Baylor philosopher Scott H. Moore is impatient with Christians who choose confrontation and condemnation as their weapons against secularizing and dehumanizing tendencies in contemporary society and politics. In the closing chapter of this small book on a dauntingly large subject, he calls for an embrace of “hospitality and the culture of life” that would involve more listening than preaching. When we find ourselves in fundamental disagreement with our neighbors over abortion or gay marriage, he urges, we should look for points of agreement and future cooperation, not dig defensive trenches and call in the artillery. Liberal society upholds toleration as a supreme political virtue, Moore notes, but it is far too weak a foundation for a shared political life:

Tolerance is the practice that says, “We are willing to put up with you. We don’t like you, or your ideas, or your behavior, but we are willing to stomach your sorry condition and behavior in the name of your civic liberty to do and be these things.” Hospitality, by contrast, is the specifically Christian practice which says, “We want to put you up. We welcome you to enter our houses on the condition that you let us enter your lives, engaging you about the matters in which we are morally and religiously disagreed, confessing our own limits and sins as we help you confess yours” (156).

The phrasing here is odd (do we really need to “enter” others’ lives? Why say we “are disagreed”?). And is hospitality a “specifically Christian” practice? Try this test: show up as a hungry stranger at the home of a North American Christian, a Saudi Moslem, and a Hindu in India. Still, Moore’s suggestion that hospitality can counter the polarization and division that afflicts our own society deserves a hearing.

The preceding chapters do not mark out a very direct path to this conclusion, however. Moore builds his case against contemporary liberalism on two episodes from the 1990s: a special issue of First Things in which several contributors bemoaned the spirit of judicial activism that they found in recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court; and a disputed hiring decision at the University of Notre Dame that revealed deep disagreements between assimilationist and countercultural factions in the Philosophy and Theology faculties. Without a doubt, all of the principals in both of these disputes have moved on by now—some to the next world, some to other issues. But evidently these events still gnaw at Moore’s sensibilities, because he believes they are signs that American Christians on both right and left are blind to the dangers of contemporary liberalism.

To be more precise, the dangers emanate from “Liberalism,” whose defining feature is regard for “the autonomy of the individual as not only an intrinsic good which democratic government can guarantee but also as a foundational good which trumps all other values”(23). Stated more simply—this phrase recurs frequently—it is the doctrine that “politics is reducible to statecraft.” Both lower-case liberals, who value “comprehensive government,” and conservatives, who embrace “minimalist government,” tend to embrace Liberalism in this sense, exalting individual liberty above all else. Moore finds more similarity than difference of fundamental outlook, for example, between neoconservative crusader Gertrude Himmelfarb and postmodern ironist Richard Rorty (86).

Moore writes in the Introduction that his goal is to explore “the consequences for religion and politics when believers begin to doubt that it is always possible to be both a good Christian and a good American” (17). With a brief nod to the work of philosophers Thomas Kuhn, John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre, Moore calls for an “extraordinary politics” that “challenges the dominant paradigm of Liberal democracy” (21). Two chapters are devoted to the two case studies, and two more to showing that some of the principals in these dust-ups embrace such an alternative vision of politics while others affirm the individualist dogma of Liberalism. Lower-case liberals and conservatives are found in both camps.

In the sixth of eight chapters, Moore sets forth at last his vision of what “extraordinary politics” entails. At its core is a conception of “what it means to be mature and what counts as human flourishing” (101). Politics, in this view, involves far more than “statecraft,” far more than mere procedural negotiation: its goals encompass every aspect of life in the polis and seek nothing less than “soul craft,” the proper formation of the person (103). Procedural democracy is important but has its limits: our souls need to be nourished by a community that is “predicated on a particular goal or telos for human community” (104). But what drives contemporary politics is the mistaken notion that human flourishing consists in untrammeled exercise of individual liberty, an idea Moore attributes to the influence of ThomasHobbes, Immanual Kant, and Max Weber.

This is an audacious argument, and Moore presents it in a clear and engaging way. But its oversimplifications and omissions, in the end, diminish its force. Hobbes has had far less influence on contemporary democratic theory than John Locke, but only the former is cited. Kant’s account of the self is rich and complex, intertwining Enlightenment ideals and Christian beliefs in ways that continue to generate important philosophical insights, but he figures in this account only for his critique of “self-imposed immaturity” in an essay on the nature of enlightenment. Casting Weber as an apologist for “a state-sponsored ethic of responsibility,” enforced when necessary by violence, seems to construe what is intended as descriptive as if it were prescriptive.

Moreover, some other writers whose vision of the political order is aligned more closely with Moore’s—beginning with Aristotle and Aquinas, and in the contemporary context E. B.Macpherson, Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel—are mentioned only in passing, if at all. Moore could have made his own position clearer by engaging the theories of some of these writers.

Moore does cite the work of legal historian John Witte on the transformation of marriage from sacrament to contract, but he overlooks other works by the same author that challenge Moore’s account of individual rights. In The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion andHuman Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Witte demonstrates that modern conceptions of human rights owe at least as much to second-generation Calvinist political theology as to Enlightenment individualism. To regard human rights as an essentially secular notion, Witte shows, is historically as well as philosophically misleading.

Moore goes too far, then, when he asserts that “rights discourse is one way that Liberal hegemony over our private lives is both perpetuated and concealed” (118). Individual rights are an essential defense against the state’s false claims of supremacy; the recognition of other values besides individual choice, on the other hand, is a necessary corrective to any theory in which justice is solely a matter of individual rights. Moore’s dismissal of “rights discourse” is far too sweeping.

In chapter 7, Moore contrasts a politics of human flourishing to the “culture of convenience,” for which happiness equals affluence, and every problem has a quick and efficient solution. This is the culture that provides remote controls to save us the bother of getting up to change the channel, no-fault divorce to avoid the hard work of repairing a troubled relationship, and cohabitation for couples unwilling to commit to marriage. But now the examples become weightier, and the links murkier: we favor capital punishment as a convenient way of disposing of criminals, euthanasia to rid us of burdensome elders, and abortion as a quick solution to the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. The culture of convenience, insists Moore—here and elsewhere taking his cue from recent social encyclicals issued by Rome—has become a “culture of death.”

But wait a minute: is there really a slippery slope from remote controls to euthanasia? Are not individual rights invoked as often by opponents as by supporters of euthanasia and abortion? In the case of capital punishment, has Moore not noticed that the Vatican and the ACLU are uneasy allies, one on the basis of a communal notion of common good, the other an unswerving defender of offenders’ rights? This chapter tells us what side Moore takes on these issues, but just how the examples relate to each other and why a more holistic conception of politics can resolve them are difficult to discern.

The last chapter, quoted at the outset, upholds hospitality as a central element in “extraordinary politics.” Moore closes the book with a call to acknowledge honestly our captivity to individualism and “happiness as convenience,” and then to strive instead for a politics that “does not celebrate independence but dependence—dependence on God and God’s people, the body of Christ” (158). This is a worthy ideal, eloquently stated—even though we have arrived here more by serendipity than by sustained argument.

Is this “an ideal text for undergraduate courses in a variety of areas” of ethics and politics, as one blurb writer advises? Alas, no: for that purpose it is too disjointed, too dated (nearly all the sources cited are from 2000 or before), and insufficiently accurate in representing others’ theories. But in a book club or adult education class, the range of topics touched on and the directness of Moore’s writing style could make it a good choice to launch a fruitful discussion.

Cite this article
David Hoekema, “The Limits of Liberal Democracy: Politics and Religion at the End of Modernity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 251-253

David Hoekema

Calvin University
David A. Hoekema is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College.