Friday, February 25, 2011

What's Wrong with Liberalism?

“What’s Wrong with Conservatism?” was the title of my previous blog posting. As promised, here is a look at the other side.

As many of you know, last year I published a book under the title The Limits of Liberalism (LoL). While LoL is primarily about theological liberalism rather than social or political liberalism, which is my main concern in this posting, there are definite overlaps.
In short, in whatever context they are being considered, liberals tend to have too high an opinion of human nature and are thereby are often “guilty” of pride and misplaced optimism. In the political sphere, those attitudes lead, among other things, to an over-emphasis on the role of government to solve the problems in human society.
One of the more important quotes in LoL is found under the title of the eighth chapter, “The Limits of Liberalism’s Understanding of Sin.” Chris Hedges, a former journalist for the New York Times, writes in his book now titled When Atheism Becomes Religion (2009), “We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin” (p. 13).
(Hedges, pictured on the right, is the author of several books, the latest being Death of the Liberal Class, 2010, a hard hitting book which I have not read much of yet, and I have questions about what I have read.)
Liberals talk a lot about social problems, and may even talk about “social sin,” but they tend to think that with enough human effort those societal sins can be overcome. And make no mistake about it: there have been many social ills that have been largely overcome by the work of those who can rightfully be called liberals. Slavery has been abolished as has such evils as child labor and the exploitation of adult workers, as well as the male dominance of women to a large degree. But can government create an ideal society?
As I write in LoL, “Back in the 1960s, one of my revered seminary professors made what I thought were rather snide remarks about President Johnson’s attempts to create a ‘great society’ in the United States” (p. 208). Dr. Rust saw Johnson’s liberal policies as evidence of hubris, which the dictionary defines as “overbearing pride or presumption,” and he may well have been right.
Liberals tend to see education and the creation of a positive social environment as cures for the ills of society. Moreover, according to social and political liberals it is the role of government to provide that education and to create that desired social environment. And, again, make no mistake about it: education and eradicating negative social conditions are very important.
But problems remain. I also remember Dr. Rust emphasizing that if you educate a sinner what you get is an educated sinner who will then be able to sin more ingeniously. And he was probably right. Doesn’t it seem as though the greatest “sins” of our times have been committed by well-educated, well-heeled, and well-placed people of power?
Partly because of their overly optimistic view of human nature, liberals tend to place too much emphasis on legislation and government spending to solve social problems and to bring about desired social change. They often fail to place adequate stress upon personal responsibility.
So perhaps the main thing wrong with liberalism is, indeed, its failure to recognize the problem of sin, which among other things means innate self-centeredness, and which is the major root of personal and public problems which no government program can eradicate.


  1. Hi, Leroy,
    I appreciate your two recent columns but want to take issue, not so much with the criticism of liberalism, but the reinforcing of a simplistic dichotomy. My guess is that most conservatives would not recognize themselves in your last column, and most liberals do not recognize themselves in this one. Perhaps that's because they don't know themselves, but I would suggest it's because the labels of "conservative" and "liberal" are broad brushstrokes that originate in polarized political cultures, and, so, at best are caricatures. They work okay as broad labels perhaps on a spectrum of political thought, but when you try to characterize them, you end up with what they are in essence, caricatures. You did a good job last time of providing examples of conservative resistance to a number of progressive causes we all approve of now. In this column there's not a single example of some major mistake as a result of liberalism's "overly optimistic view of human nature." Let me mention one that comes readily to mind as a possibility but also which complicates the characterization. Did Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson get us into the Vietnam War because they were overly optimistic about what we could do, or did they get us into the war because they over-estimated the evil of communism?

  2. I find the previous comment enlightening.

    The Judeo Christian belief is that the people of God should be liberal/generous in deed as commanded by God. By and large the Church is losing that orientation.

    Governments through the ages have specialized in taking / confiscating for the betterment of the rulers or the realm. We see this even in our own government, just as Benjamin Franklin warned we would. Both "liberals" and "conservatives" have justified this for their own purposes. Governments, including our own, are generally weak on the time honored ethics justice (in both senses), having generally replaced them with wishy-washy mores.

  3. As one of the member's of Leroy's Sunday School class, I can report that the class just finished reading Limits of Liberalism. We gave him a hard time on several chapters, but generally he came back with a way of restating his points that we could live with.

    We all agreed with the assessment of the over optimism of the liberalism from a century ago, but were more skeptical of the existence of such optimism in contemporary liberalism. Indeed, the last century has provided a continuous lesson in just how wayward human nature is. However, we did not quite see eye to eye on current options. Leroy seems to want to find a center for Christianity in neo-orthodoxy, that, while perhaps a geographic center, is not necessarily the optimal center. Overall, though, we found his book an excellent and challenging read on the history of liberalism.

    I think Antonkjacobs has hit on a good example of how hard it can be to tease out the distinctions between liberal and conservative. Lyndon Johnson was a liberal in many ways, but he still had a Texas conservatism in him that showed through at times. I find it interesting that the three of the four major wars since Korea were started by Presidents from Texas, and none of them look too good in hindsight. And the fourth war was by adopted Texan George H W Bush.

    Johnson came to the Presidency after being in the Senate throughout the Army-McCarthy hearings. Johnson was not going to let anyone accuse him of being soft on Communism. One of the mysteries of his Presidency is the question of what Kennedy would have done with Vietnam if Kennedy had lived. Would Kennedy also have escalated into a quagmire? All we know is that Johnson shattered the liberal alliance of the Democratic Party, as it was the liberals of his own party who mounted the fierce resistance to the war, with Martin Luther King, Jr. being an example of such a liberal.

    LIfe in Washington has shattered many a person. Sometimes it seems the best are shattered the worst. This has happened to liberals like Robert McNamara, but more recently it happened to conservative Allan Greenspan. It seems only the political hacks come through unscathed.

  4. My esteemed friend in Kentucky who usually writes, and usually writes in agreement with my postings, sent comments this time disagreeing. Here is what he wrote:

    "I think you are probably right in your main point, Leroy. Reinhold Niebuhr would certainly support you on that. However, I doubt whether "the greatest 'sins' of our times have been committed by well-educated, well-heeled, and well-placed people in power" if you are thinking of them as the "liberals." Some of the most egregious sins that I can think of--like the slaying of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, the bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham that cost four girls their lives, the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the recent gunning down of a slew of people in Tucson--were perpetrated by poorly educated whites. Do you not think that FDR took steps critical for the recovery of America from the Great Depression? Should we not take action to prevent the bombings and shootings?"

  5. I am very happy to share the following comments (with his permission) of a new Facebook friend. He is Muhammad Al Zekri (b. 1970) from Bahrain.

    "If we educate a sinning government, ruling family, or president, the result is an educated sinner. Those heads of state, who are committing the most horrific atrocities against humanity, received high-quality assistance from public relation firms, lobbying companies, etc. which helped them look less demonic in the eyes of the Western public.
    The world conscience is waking up, as it discovers the true nature of those Arab leaders. The current wide-scale Arab uprisings somehow made the West realize that they were tolerating those educated tyrant Arab heads of state, such as Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Many educated tyrant Arab heads of state are nevertheless still in power. Would the West continue to put up with them, or would they consider exerting pressure to change towards alternatives?"

  6. This week's spate of violent and threatening and condescending remarks by "liberals" did not leave much doubt about perceived differences in values.