The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church. The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of convenience with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.
Late-stage liberalism, which calls itself “progressive,” embodies a distinctive secularized soteriology and eschatology. Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what. The uncertainty is itself the point. From the liberal standpoint, the essential thing is that the new issue provokes opposition from the forces of reaction, who may then be conquered in a public and dramatic fashion by the political mobilization of liberal forces.
There are two ways of understanding this dynamic. One is that in the long run, liberalism undermines itself by transforming tolerance into increasingly radical intolerance of the “intolerant”—meaning those who hold illiberal views. On this view, militant progressivism is distinct from liberalism, indeed a betrayal of it. Such an account would make liberalism analogous to Marx’s claim about capitalism: Liberalism is inherently unstable and is structurally disposed to generate the very forces that destroy it.
A different view, and my own, is that liberal intolerance represents not the self-undermining of liberalism, but a fulfillment of its essential nature. When a chrysalis shelters an insect that later bursts forth from it and leaves it shattered, the chrysalis has in fact fulfilled its true and predetermined end. Liberalism of the purportedly tolerant sort is to militant progressivism as the chrysalis is to the hideous insect.
The Church’s role as liberalism’s principal target and antagonist is also structurally embedded. At the level of revolutionary politics, the Church and clergy were central targets for the rage of the philosophes and the violence of the mob. At the level of theory, Maurice Cowling showed that Mill’s putatively rational and tolerant liberalism was born out of a patricidal hatred of Christianity, and a desire that the wheel of history should turn once more, and then stop—with the Church replaced by a progressive “clerisy,” enforcing liberal commitments through state education. Both politically and theoretically, hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth.
The deep causes of this antagonism are a question for another day. Patrick Deneen believes that liberalism is best understood as a Christian heresy, a mutation of Gnosticism. Ryszard Legutko thinks that liberalism ultimately finds intolerable the inegalitarian character of Christian salvation, which is unequally distributed. These accounts are both important, but neither, in my view, fully explains why liberalism behaves as it does, and in particular why it is so obsessed with sex. Why, exactly, is it that liberalism so often triggers a celebration of the Festival by attempting to disrupt traditional norms surrounding the family and sexuality? It is no accident, I think, that in the very first celebration of the Festival, the revolutionaries deliberately desecrated the holy altar of Our Lady in Paris, one of the great sacred places of Christendom. Liberalism’s deepest enmity, it seems, is ultimately reserved for the Blessed Virgin—and thus Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12:1–9, which describe the Virgin’s implacable enemy, give us the best clue as to liberalism’s true identity. But whatever the deep causes may be, the phenomenon of hostility to the Church is unmistakable.
This article continues at [First Things] A Christian Strategy