The most compact and brilliant definition of liberalism (which includes what passes itself off as “conservatism” in the Anglo-American world) I have ever come across was written by William Miller in the first chapter of his Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. In 1973 (or sometime before), Miller wrote:
In this era the acceptable humanism of progress was located in the dogmas of liberalism. Fervor was in the faith that by keeping abreast of the sweep of time, especially in the institutional forms that order its sweep, the essential goodness of men would blood and life would be made rich. The method of liberalism was that of knowing the phenomenal world and then in a continued rearrangement of its forms keeping time’s flow harmonious. In the midst of this change and flow men, as always, required a basis for community, something to be together in. The national state became the primary source of community; never was its cohesive power stronger than when war invested it with all those marks of power in the form of military might that bore testimony to its progress.
For the age of technological enlightenment the liberal outlook was a harmonious vision. Time moved with a regular cadence, governed by a moral order. Now all of this has gone. Time has accelerated, and progress has become flight. It is not change that is anticipated but shock, and the formulas of radical adjustment devised to meet this change never fit, but before they can operate are discarded in the wake of hurtling time. — p. 3-4
I’m not sure I agree with Miller that “all this has gone.” The idea that human beings are innately good, and can must fully realize that goodness if the institutions and structures within which they live are improved, reformed, made better, more efficient, kinder, less “self-interested”. In short, a society where it would be easier for people to be good, as Ellis noted of Peter Maurin in his memoir of life in a Catholic Worker community in New York. The faith that these things are achievable, doable, possible, even certain — the most certain outcome of hard, faithful, well-intentioned work done by the hands and hearts of honest, decent, good people motivated to make the world a better place — this idea dies hard. It is the central tenet of Enlightenment faith, it has oddly been reconciled with the Christian faith from which it sprung (but which it stands in opposition).
Liberalism requires the state, the state to measure the natural world, to measure and restrain and educate human beings. It requires the state touch, taste, smell, and manipulate all things. There can be nothing that is not subject to the state if the natural, innate goodness of human beings is to be brought out. Even at its worst, waging war, the state does so for the bettering of mankind and humanity (sacrificing individual human beings to the task, as making a world where it is “easier for people to be good” is more important than any actual individual human life), for the measuring and manipulation of nature and human beings.
I have long thought that Liberal Christianity’s greatest problem (and by Liberal Christianity, I do not mean politically liberal in the American sense, though that is one annoying manifestation; I mean the desire to reconcile the claims made upon God’s people — the church — in scripture with the Enlightenment) is its attempts to turn the Kingdom of God into a political and social project, one that can be achieved through deliberate, programmatic human effort. The Liberal Gospel seeks, as its grace-filled world, a world without sin, a world in which there is absolutely no need for God’s grace.