On Liberal Conceits (Part 1 of an Occasional Series)

Some years ago, when reading an interview in Salon with French intellectual (sic) Bernard-Henri Levy, I developed the notion of something I called “the liberal conceit.” I think it was the cognitive dissonance in Levy’s insistence that killing people is wrong (thus his opposition to the death penalty) and yet his support for liberal/humanitarian intervention and war (because allowing people to live under dictators is immoral). It seemed to me Levy did not get that humanitarian intervention is war, and therefore killing, but perhaps this is why I am an neither a neoconservative nor a French intellectual (sic).

(In fact, I wad going to write the first of these essays based on the Levy interview, until I went back and reread it to discover it did not say what I remembered it saying or quite what I thought it had said. What he said was annoying enough, however.)

At any rate, I am going to write these essays over time, in no particular order. But first, I need to define what I mean by liberal. Liberalism is is the governing mindset of modernity. It is individualistic (that is, focuses on the well-being of the individual, even if it is collectivist), optimistic about the moral and material condition of humanity (always improving, and human beings are essential “good” when allowed to be), focuses on emancipation (liberty and social equality), and that the final “meaning” of human life is determined collectively in and by the state and society (society being that community which is bounded by the state).

(Conservative readers should not get complacent. These are your values too, generally speaking.)

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to preach a sermon on Matthew’s beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) that liberal Christians, as a general rule, tend to see these blessings applying only to those who are “unfortunate,” to those who ended up on the “wrong side” of life’s lottery. That is, those who aren’t rich and powerful, but only through no fault of their own. This little phrase came to mind:

The mercy of God is for the guilty, and not merely the unfortunate.

When Jesus tells his disciples after he goes up the mountain, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV), he doesn’t qualify that statement. It may be the “poor in spirit” are that way because they’ve never gotten an even break or anything remotely resembling justice in the world. But it may also be that the “poor in spirit” are the authors of some, much or even all of their misfortune.

To be a liberal is essentially to divide the world up into three categories of people: the unfortunate, who are unable to secure justice for themselves and thus need people to secure justice for them; the virtuous, who do the actual securing of justice; and the evil, who are largely responsible for creating or perpetuating the condition of the unfortunate and thus also need the intervention of the virtuous in order for justice to prevail.

The key liberal notion is justice, which is a kind-of social vengeance. Justice for the unfortunate means ending their misfortune. But they cannot do it themselves, so they must be empowered or guided by the virtuous, who will use power wisely and fairly to empower the unfortunate and bring the evil to heel. Justice for the evil means anything from their re-education to their annihilation. But the evil deserve only justice, and not mercy, because the right ordering of the world — the just ordering of the world — demands it. The mercy of God has no place in the just ordering of the world. The guilty and the innocent, the evil and the unfortunate, receive justice and only justice. For the unfortunate, that justice is their elevation at the hands of the virtuous. For the evil, that justice is their being brought low at the hands of the virtuous.

It is my experience that most liberals, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, see themselves as “virtuous,” as seeking obvious good for the unfortunate. There is significant disagreement on who the unfortunate are, or how the nature of the justice the virtuous should pursue on their behalf, but the basic belief is the same. And the basic desire to wield power, even an allegedly disinterested power (there is no such thing, since power always seeks to aggrandize the self; empowering others is a form of self-aggrandizement), is the same as well. A lot of power given to the virtuous in this scheme. A lot of power they give themselves.

The virtuous rarely if ever question their own virtue. Their motives are not subject to review or conscience nor is the destruction they wreck upon the earth — and much of the violence and injustice done in the 19th and 20th centuries has been done by the virtuous wielding state power in the name of justice and good (at least for someone). And they rarely question what constitutes justice. Because they (at least to themselves) so obviously embody all that is good and noble and pure in human aspirations and divine commands.

But in the end, the virtuous in the liberal scheme of things seek a world in which God’s mercy is no longer necessary because there is perfect justice or at least justice striven for.

This is why I am so militantly (and yes, I use that word on purpose) opposed to the language of justice used by the social democratic left and its fellow-travelers in the liberal and progressive church. (The right doesn’t use the language very much but pursues the same kinds of ends.) There is no mercy in justice language, and the aspiration for justice is really a grab for power in the name of virtue, power unchecked by other power, and unlikely to be checked effectively by conscience. I don’t think there’s even much “justice” in justice language, since it seeks power, and any power that can be used for good will be used for evil. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east every morning.

Only the virtuous almost never see the evil they do in the pursuit of justice. Or even care.

One thought on “On Liberal Conceits (Part 1 of an Occasional Series)

  1. I’m curious as to how mercy looks, as something to be built along with justice in real political situations.The closest I’ve seen to an articulation of such is in the writings of Oscar Romero and Paolo Freire.Your thoughts?

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