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This idea has been on my mind ever since a conversation I had with a fellow Anglican several months back on the current state of the Anglican Communion. We both agreed that the Anglican Communion’s greatest strength was simultaneously its greatest weakness and that which was pulling it apart—to what looks like its inevitable doom—its liberalism. Yet, despite the potential desirability of liberalism, it is rarely touted as a good as such. I’d like to attempt here to so tout.

First, a comment on terminology is probably necessary. By ‘liberalism’ I mean ‘classical liberalism,’ as derivable from (what I presume to be) its Latin root (libertas), rather than ‘left.’ These two are distinct, however much they may or may not overlap, but that is a different discussion. Although the political ramifications are rather intertwined, this discussion follows more (consciously) on my reading of certain aspects of Christianity. I’m indebted in large part to the thinking of Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodr Dostoyevsky.

The importance of liberalism hinges on the paradox of power: ultimately, power is weak but weakness is power. There are two levels to this, the practical and the ethical. Practically, a survey of history demonstrates the ultimate failure of attempts to strong-arm conformity, be it to a political, ideological, or religious norm. It may work for some, for many, for a time, but typically the excessive power needed to maintain dominance is self-defeating. Power can only crush, in the longue durée disabling its ability to construct. The long-lasting Persians embraced (a form of) diversity; the Hellenizing Seleucids broke apart. The Soviet Empire collapsed to (a short-lived) glasnost and perestroika.

Of course, the inverse of the weakness of power is the power of weakness. Any one who is aware of the careers of Gandi or Martin Luther King or the concept of martyrs can easily understand this phenomenon.

Further, the Gospel message contains a message that weakness is power. The Christ came in the form a helpless child, to a poor family, in a backwater country. The scandal of his preaching was that he offered the Kingdom of G-d now, to the lowly, and that He offered Himself and not the wicked as a sacrifice for sin. Christianity preaches the way of sacrifice, of weakness. This leads to the ethical side of the dialectic. Embracing weakness offers a path of engagement, dialogue, and the forging of mutual community. It allows for the treatment of others as truly like oneself, as ‘others.’ By eschewing power and attempting to engage through dialogue and engagement, several things must happen. First, we must treat the other as a partner valuable in themselves, rather than as a subject. Second, we must admit that they bring something valuable to the table as well. Third, we offer a chance for mutual involvement and community-building, rather than of mere assent (and the inevitable dissent). It is a focus on winning community rather than conquests or converts. Fourth, we imitate the G-d who invites us to His kingdom while allowing us to reject Him. If G-d Himself does not force Himself on us, how could a human presume to do so?

Liberalism is dangerous—it tends toward looking like disunity; it leads to quarrelling; it is dreadfully inefficient; some will refuse to participate. It also can lead to hopeless relativizing and the forgetting of principles in a maze of compromizing. But more worrisome, liberalism, by these vices, can be seduced by power. It comes early, and it comes subtly at least as often as it comes brazenly. The urge to conformity—either by surrendering one’s own integrity to a higher power or by demanding a lower power surrender theirs—is powerful. It comes in the urge to dictate rather than dialogue. It even comes in the desire for rapid reform. It comes in the back-door when we accept the easy solution offered in another’s moral decision.

Paul Tillich somewhere opines and laments that liberalism can never be long-lasting, always fated to succumb either to totalitarian forces from without or totalitarianizing urges within. This is a bleak prospect, and can be easily understood in light of the seductiveness of power as well as Tillich’s post-Nazi context. But need it be so?

In my limited reading in political theory, liberalism tends to be invoked as a stop-gap measure against the evil of corrupting power. But from a Christian context, could not Liberalism be heralded as a good in-and-of-itself, one which was both modelled and called for by Christ? Could we not argue that an ethical view of fellow human beings and a proper epistemological humility require it for human interaction? Could we not defend it as good?

IF we link liberalism to the ethical valuing of people as individuals, then there is no question of it being a good. But the problem with such a perspective is twofold. First, it tends towards anarchy (thus opening the door to a strongman to assert power and/or to debilitating relativism); second, it creates the fallacy of the rightness of the majority (and thus to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which is totalitarianism masquerading as liberalism). At the moment, all I can think of to combat the first is to assert that epistemology is not ontology and to reaffirm the value of strengthening liberalism as a good. Towards the second, perhaps it is pertinent to suggest that republicanism (small ‘r,’ perhaps better is representationalism) as a potential antidote to the tyranny of the majority in politics (and perhaps an analogous concept in other contexts), combined, again, with a reaffirmation of the value of the individual. Republicanism (representative discussion as opposed to pure democracy) creates a slower process requiring more consensus building (in theory), while a proper view of the value of the individual should temper the urge to marginalize any of them.

For liberalism to work, it demands a rigour and a personal responsibility not needed when autonomy is ceded to another human being. It requires the recognition of others as autonomous. It requires a commitment to community of choice rather than force. It requires self-sacrifice and humility.

I would consider liberalism thus as the better and more difficult road. I would count among those who advocated such a position Socrates, Jesus, Locke, Jefferson, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsky. Perhaps if we focus on the goodness of liberalism, we can capitalize on its strengths rather than its weaknesses.

To those with more advanced studies in ethics and/or political theory than I, please do comment on the tenability of the arguments above; critiques welcomed.

 Jason M. Silverman
25 December 2009