Reading Liberalism for a New Century (Jumonville and Mattson, eds.) recently, I was struck by the backward-looking nature of allegedly cutting-edge liberal thought.
I’ll admit a certain bias: I keep a distance to American liberalism, though I invariably end up grudgingly voting Democratic. Liberals are far too conservative for my taste. And in this book too, liberal writers complain that liberalism has been marginalized in US politics because it has been insufficiently nationalistic, associated with secularism, and antagonizing to the business classes. The solution, naturally, is to be even more Republican-lite, only perhaps replacing conservative righteousness with a characteristically liberal smugness.
But more than that, the book is dripping with nostalgia for the 1950’s, when the Cold War allowed liberals to demonstrate that they too could stand up to Unamerican subversives, and when liberal political thought was unapologetically informed by theology. They have Niebuhr-style liberal theologians in mind, naturally, not the Falwell’s of the era to come.
And I suppose that would be better. American politics is almost invariably religious politics. And if the center-right liberalism of some Democrats is better to give secularists some breathing space than the reactionary conservatism Republicans favor—and that seems certainly to be the case—well, I can only hope the less loony theologians win out.
Still, I have to wonder. The older style of liberal theology, which had some pretense of intellectual substance, seems to be at a seriously low point in terms of enjoying a public base. The politically centrist religious figures of today are not clones of Niebuhr but people like Wallis, Cizik, or Warren (ick). They’re at best lukewarm toward secular constituencies—amenable to working together with on some subset of issues, perhaps some environmental concerns, but no more.
In times like this, I feel fortunate that my political and religious views are completely out of the American mainstream. I have no hope of affecting anything anyway, so I can just continue my useless carping from the sidelines no matter what comes to pass.