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Higher Goals of Life

A liberalism that fails to come to terms with religion is destined to falter.

Joseph E. Capizzi

As Francis Fukuyama’s essay “Liberalism and Its Discontents” shows, the ideology of liberalism is as insecure as ever and religion continues to pose problems for it. The case for liberalism’s superiority has been destabilized both by political events and by liberalism’s apparent unattractiveness to younger generations, who are drawn more and more to formerly discredited views like socialism and to illiberal and “postliberal” alternatives allowing for thicker social relationships and clearer sources of identity.

Like almost everyone else considering liberalism’s fate, Fukuyama explains liberalism as “an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity.” Diversity means differences of opinion about fundamental beliefs; in other words, religious diversity is the problem liberalism seeks to solve. Or, to be still more precise, liberalism seeks to remove faith claims from politics and religion from public life altogether. Thus, it is not diversity in general but only certain kinds of claims—religious claims—that are the real trouble, and they are understood by liberals as inherently illiberal, even irrational.

So, Fukuyama: “Liberalism thus protects diversity by deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life. This disqualifies religiously defined communities as liberal.” “Religiously defined communities”—a very broad concept not merely limited to political entities such as states—are illiberal because they specify higher goals of human life, not because they are or are not opposed to diversity. No wonder, then, “religiously defined” young people adopt the language of illiberality! They are being ushered by the elbow into it by people like Fukuyama.

As with his earlier work, Fukuyama’s essay bases the emergence of liberalism on the mythology of religious warfare that has been questioned so effectively by William Cavanaugh, among others. Cavanaugh has shown that coreligionists were as likely to kill each other as those of a different faith. The mythology of religious warfare served to transfer loyalty from religious communities to the modern state. Fukuyama continues to employ a caricature of European wars (including the English Civil War) at the expense of religion and for the benefit of liberalism, a liberalism, he has contended, that had “vanquished religion in Europe” [emphasis in the original].

Once vanquished, liberals contend, the absence of religion allowed the blossoming of peace in the West. Liberalism became evangelical for human dignity in the space offered by peace. “Liberals care not just about their rights, but about the rights of others outside their particular communities. Thus the French Revolution carried the Rights of Man across Europe.” Yet despite the liberal spirit of the French Revolutionary Wars—not to mention the unparalleled violence of the 20th century and the ongoing violence of the 21st—instances of violent conflict are waved away by Fukuyama as the consequences of reversions to “religious-type” ideological warfare, not to liberalism.


One gets the impression that the past twenty years have provoked liberalism’s psychological breakdown. It faces another crisis of legitimation that Fukuyama hopes to address. Its weaknesses in the realms of economics and culture remain. With regard to the former, liberalism morphs “into something of a religion” where principle prevails over pragmatic observation, provoking deep inequalities in wealth and rising oligarchies.  With regard to culture, liberalism is parasitic on the existence in its citizenry of values, habits, and even institutions drawn from other sources. Because liberalism “deliberately lowered the horizon of politics,” it left a vacuum in its place to be filled by external sources of energy, like “consumerism or pop culture.”

As Hannah Arendt wrote around 1951, liberalism is a lethargic ideology that

has demonstrated its inability to resist totalitarianism so often that its failure may already be counted among the historical facts of our century. Wherever free bodies politic and free societies still exist and function, reasonably free from immediate danger—and where do they function except in the United States and possibly Great Britain?—they owe their existence to the customs, habits, and institutions formed in a great past and cultivated through a great tradition.

Liberalism cannot produce the resources to resist demagogues and authoritarians or even to sustain itself. Liberalism sucked on the teats of traditions it could not sustain, until those traditions lay desiccated and infirm and liberalism’s own cultures roamed elsewhere for sustenance.

Liberals like Fukuyama have not adequately explained why the goods of liberal society require the caricaturing of religion. Religion and religious believers remain a durable part of Western culture. The emergence of Islam in Europe continues to vex liberal political reflection. Liberalism seems stuck peddling the idea of a political space evacuated of religious commitment and “neutral” with regard to the good and to the human being.

But no one really believes in that neutrality, do they? People recognize this as a fictional claim. And so long as the state and its liberal defenders sell something the public refuses to buy, the public will find both of them to be unreliable advocates for any good—especially those sold the hardest, public liberty and personal autonomy. No wonder so many religious folks worry, like Popes Benedict and Francis, about the totalitarian impulses of liberal secularism. They don’t believe liberal society intends them no harm. (Remember: according to Fukuyama, religious communities are by definition illiberal. They are “other,” and to be treated as such.)

Fukuyama is right that many of us take for granted the economic and political goods provided so well by liberal societies. Many of the freedoms we enjoy are longed for by those who lack them. If liberalism, or at least the liberal values from which we all benefit and many of which we cherish, is to regain its appeal, it is going to have to make peace with “specifying higher goals of human life.”

This does not mean the state must offer a solution! It is quite possible that both liberals and postliberals share equally defective views of the state’s capacity to secure the goods we desire. The modern state is so much more vast and comprehensive than the state of the late 18th and early 19th centuries; reflection on its agency needs always to accompany thinking about our political relationship with liberalism. But the construction of institutions necessary to preserve liberal goods and to sustain the energies necessary for individual and communal flourishing will also and always require a reassessment of the place of religious belief in communal life.

Joseph E. Capizzi is Ordinary Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America and the executive director of the Institute for Human Ecology.

Discussion replyDemocracyCultureUnited StatesPolitical PhilosophyReligion

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