Liberalism Depends on That Which It Destroys

Why does it seem that orderly, prosperous, and well-run societies are usually less religious, but the less religious a society becomes the more disorderly it gets?

The situation is complex, it’s hard to do comparisons, and polling results are subject to a great deal of interpretation, but general trends seem clear. Northern and Western European countries are irreligious, Northeast Asian countries such as China and Japan are irreligious, and communist and post-communist countries are irreligious, except where religion was part of resistance to foreign ideological domination. In contrast, less developed areas such as Africa, South America, and Asia outside the Russian and Chinese cultural spheres are usually quite religious.

Given all that, it seems clear that religion doesn’t mix with success or modernization, right?

Actually, the picture is more complicated than that. It does appear that more order and prosperity mean less religion. That should be no surprise: people have been saying for some time that there are no atheists in foxholes and the poor are closer to God. It’s also true that the trend throughout the world seems to be away from religion. On the other hand, it’s equally true that less religion means less order and prosperity. Kill a country’s religion, and you kill the country. Throughout the West the post-60s period has been marked not only by a trend toward extreme secularity, but by an end to the postwar boom and by intractable social problems, including radical increases in crime and family instability.

To explain the situation we need to look at the relation between religion and social order. That relation is both close and complex. Religion has to do with ultimate principles and loyalties, social order with the principles and loyalties that connect us to others. The two are closely linked. Man is rational enough so he’ll try to avoid a situation in which what he accepts ultimately is too much at odds with what he accepts socially. One way or another, the two sides of life mostly come to mirror each other. The influence is usually mutual. Christian and Muslim societies are different, so it’s evident religion influences social order. Irish and Mexican Catholicism are different, so the reverse is also true: society influences religion. It’s a dynamic relation, and it’s usually hard to be sure which side is in charge. Sometimes, though, one side becomes altogether dominant and the other an appendage. God becomes the only king, or the State becomes God. Such situations are always temporary. Attempts to build the New Jerusalem here and now are corrupted by less elevated concerns, and the New Jerusalem turns out to have a lot of the Old Babylon in it. Religion can’t be altogether merged with political power without loss of integrity: that’s why Catholicism doesn’t favor rule by priests, but only acceptance by secular rulers of their obligations to God and religion.

On the other hand, the totalitarian effort to create a wholly secular order with no king but Caesar also corrupts itself and falls apart. People find it hard to believe that the will of the leader, the determinations of experts, or the decision of the market is really the highest law, and the strain of trying to do so means they close their eyes to reality and do stupid and destructive things. Eventually nature reasserts herself, the people lose faith, and the authorities stop believing their own claims. The New Order slides into chaos, and religious believers emerge from the catacombs and try to rebuild a society in which religion limits and purifies worldly power.

It can take a while for all that to happen. The West today is heading ever more strongly in the direction of radical secularism. Politics are liberal and thought is technological, which means that human preferences have become the highest standard and the political and moral ideal is the transformation of the world into a sort of machine for maximizing their equal satisfaction. The social order that results from that ideal is usually considered anti-religious. That’s true in the most obvious sense, but not as comprehensively as people believe. Something that functions as religion is a social and political necessity. People need to believe that social and moral obligation is somehow inscribed in the nature of things, so when we accept and follow it we are acting in accordance with how things are. We all believe in natural law of some kind or other. So if the established religion isn’t Catholicism or Islam or some other traditional religion it will be something else put together to satisfy the same human need. If Caesar is the only king, then the king will not be Caesar simply as Caesar, but Caesar deified.

The religious outlook that corresponds to a secular liberal social order is not worship of a literal Caesar so much as belief in individual man as the supreme divinity. If the highest good is promoting individual preferences and autonomy, within the limits of a system that does that for everyone, then every individual makes things good simply by desiring them. His will creates moral reality, and thus has divine efficacy. Such an outlook leads to problems, which are at bottom the same as the problems of advanced liberalism. How can you have seven billion supreme beings, each of them establishing what is good with equal authority? What do you do when they disagree? Liberalism can be viewed as the religious system that has grown up to answer such questions.

Like other religious systems, liberalism has certain dogmas and disciplinary requirements. Its first requirement is that the divine individuals accept liberalism itself, and recognize each other’s equal godhead. To the extent one of them fails to do, for example by recognizing a supreme being that transcends the secular liberal system, he is trying to suppress some divine wills in favor of others, or so it is thought. Such a person has no place in the system, so he is cast out as a fallen deity, a demon, an oppressive bigot with no right to any kind of consideration.

The divine individuals must also support and accept the authority of the hierarchs of the liberal church, in the form of the governing structure that constitutes the liberal state and determines the practical resolution of conflicting wills. The authority of that structure is based on its claim that it is indifferent to the intrinsic value of what the billions of divinities happen to choose—to judge such matters would be to judge one divine will better than another—but only concerned with their joint fulfillment and mutual non-interference. It determines such matters, or so it claims, in a purely rational matter, so that to reject its authority is (once again) to favor arbitrary oppression of one will in favor of another and thus to fall from grace and become demonic and unworthy of consideration.

Such a governing structure, which rejects intrinsic value in favor of equality, efficiency, and manageability as supreme goals, is at odds with human nature, and becomes conceivable only through the remarkable success of technological forms of social organization such as the transnational corporation and the expert bureaucracy. The effect of making it supreme is that goods and ties that transcend individual desire must be suppressed because they get in the way. What place is there for family, church, or local community when experts, advertisers, and administrators run everything? The result is that the ideal for citizenship becomes careerism, political correctness, and moderate self-involved hedonism. That’s not an ideal that supports social order or efficiency in the long run, so the society tends (as we see today) toward dysfunction that with time grows ever more radical.

That is the irony of liberalism: it is made possible by ties and loyalties that it rejects and destroys. That kind of irony is what leads to cycles in history. Every social order is associated with a religion, or something that functions as such. If the religion corresponds to realities and human needs the society will function well and become successful. As the society becomes more and more successful, the need for a religion distinct from the society seems less pressing, and the religion that made the society successful is likely to become more and more identified with the society itself. If the society is successful enough, or singleminded enough in its pursuit of success, the religion that made it successful will effectively disappear and the secular religion that replaces it is unlikely to be functional enough to prevent radical social decline. It is that process that we now see all around us in the West.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared July 10, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above from the U.S. Supreme Court Building depicts Moses holding the 10 Commandments.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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  • Steven Jonathan

    Thank you Dr. Kalb for a very good article. This phenomena of sawing off the branch on which we sit is the oldest sophistry in the book, that which denies reality.

    Liberalism is a sin! 7 billion little gods who claim not to be religious, live espousing countless contradictory principles. Their language and their fervor is that of religious zealots, and though while they are worshiping themselves, they claim to worship nothing.

  • Patsy Koenig

    Dear Professor, Good article, except for the initial premise: that LESS religious societies are more prosperous and well-ordered. The opposite is true. More religious societies are more prosperous and more well-ordered. Sin is the cause of wars and natural disasters, such as droughts, floods and famines, as per the Blessed Mother at Fatima and Catholic Dogma. Wars and natural disasters, of course, cause poverty and chaos. That is providing the religion refered to, is the One True Relgion, and not just a man-made religion.

    • theorist

      I think that even if that is true, there is no essential connection between wealth and religion since if there was, then the story of Job makes no sense.

  • Facile1

    Liberalism is a sin. It is the sin of idolatry.

    Like ALL sin, Liberalism consumes itself like fire consumes fuel.

    Sin comes to nothing because the sinner eats away at whatever good is remaining in himself and when all the good is gone, the sinner perishes also.

    Is there a remedy to Liberalism? YES.


    It is only when one truly loves GOD FIRST can one put one’s love for anything else in its proper place — whether it is the love for one’s government or the love for one’s church (paganism); the love for one’s family or the love for one’s neighbors (humanism); the love for one’s sexual partner or the love for one’s self (narcissism).

    LOVE GOD FIRST and go in peace.

  • Prof_Override

    Interesting thesis. The assumed implied duality being setting up: individualistic / collectivistic. Framing the individualistic half with the decidedly old school liberal label (cosmotarian would be the modern term), which implies tying collectivistic to “conservative” (traditionalistic would be closer to the mark). On those terms this thesis is both logical and biblical. The “I” extracted from the biblical we – It didn’t work too well by biblical accounts and modern results speak for themselves.

    • It’s not really individualistic / collectivistic, which are coordinate terms at home in the same basic setting. Liberalism for example wants to promote radical individualism, which deprives people of enduring qualities and relationships. That makes them a collection of identical atomic particles, so they stop mattering as individuals and government becomes altogether collectivist.

      The real contrast I think is between the modern outlook, which tries to abolish first the transcendent and then nature and history, all in the interests of social technology, and a more natural outlook that recognizes the enduring importance of all those things modernity wants to abolish and the consequent impossibility of social technology.

  • Lowen_Lowen

    This is for James Kalb:
    You forget that it the absolute intent of the liberals to dismantle traditional Christian based values form our society and replace them with the state oriented values. it guarantees their control over society. Many of your priests and nuns and other staff do not see this. They see kindness and love and “accommodation” toi get along as sufficient reason for appeasing the ones that are dismantling traditional Catholic values.
    Writing about the loss of traditional Christian values is only the beginning. You have identified the enemy and now you need an action plan to affirmatively defeat liberalism within the Catholic church.
    WHY are a majority of Catholics voting liberal? How are you going to change that?
    WHY are your priests and nuns going liberal. WHY are they advocating for hard left issues and “social justice”? Why have you not weeded them out?
    Its because you have not implemented a strong curriculum of traditional Christian values (which are conservative values) within the ranks of the priests, nuns, and the catholic hierarchy, and you have not weeded out those who are hardwired activists within your own ranks.
    You have let the Liberal foxes into the Catholic henhouse and now you are being killed from the inside. All because reasonable people tend to accommodate until its too late.
    Where is your plan to combat this? It has to start at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and it has to start now and be unrelenting or you are finished.

    Lamenting is not the answer.
    The Catholic church needs to affirmatively and consistently, re-establish itself as the beacon of the traditional Christian values that made western civilization so strong and stable and aggressively combat any and ALL trends in the Catholic community that would give liberalism even the tiniest foothold.
    You have to lower the boom, and now.
    So in your following articles, might I respectfully suggest that you publish a well thought out battle plan to be embraced by the entire Catholic Hierarchy and launch a take no prisoners battle to re-establish the traditional conservative catholic values. If you don’t, you are lost and your members will continue to peel away.
    PS I removed my children form Hawaii’s catholic school system because they went full into Common Core and a liberal bias embraced by its local hierachy. I was hugely dis- appointed and embittered when this bias became apparent. You need to replace them with traditional Catholic Christian value people and get rid of the appeasers. They are killing you.

    • musicacre

      Who knows why, but it seems that every Catholic School in N. America favors shaking off the Catholic character and training that the children so badly need. And appease the teachers who have made friends with secularism. It goes deeper than that, though. It’s the curriculum and the policies that also strip all Catholicism from its very institutions. This was already happening when I attended Catholic school in the late 70’s and ditto for my husband. We compared notes and even though we were several provinces apart, it was the same malaise, the same sort of embarrassment the staff had over Catholicism, even the Ukrainian nuns that taught us. As cradle Catholics, we (my husband and I ) learned about our faith from books, etc AFTER we got married….sad.

      The church educators have very definitely and deliberately hidden the faith under a basket and it’s true that the beacons of truth need to be put back where they belong; regardless of who will shoot them down. The schools have got to get rid of walking dead staff that have long since lost their faith in God. They need to be replaced by alive teachers who understand why they are on earth and why they are being paid by a Catholic institution. We decided not to wait for that miracle to happen, we home schooled all 6 of ours and that means all the way to grade 12. I think we have a pretty good record, with 2 finished university, 2 still in, and one more preparing, I don’t think homeschooling hurt their development in the least! We are a happy, very close family and I thank God we were forced to make such an excellent decision!! The great results keep pouring in…..Providence can never be underestimated!

      • Art Deco

        Much of the difficulty is on the supply side. The religious orders which provided the manpower for the schools have seen a catastrophic implosion which has destroyed the economy of Catholic education as the priests and religious could live communally on modest stipends but lay teachers require somewhat competitive salaries to recruit and retain. Depending on what boundary conditions you select, there are somewhere between 2.5 million and 6.5 passably observant and orthodox Catholics in this country. In the population at large, perhaps 1% are employed as primary and secondary teachers. Perhaps the number who would make satisfactory teachers is larger, but many would have employments other than that in Catholic schools. In a metropolitan center of ordinary dimensions (say greater Omaha or greater Sarasota), you might be able to find enough serious Catholics to teach so as to have a school network enrolling about 2,300 youngsters. Then again you might not.

        Regrettably, homeschooling and homeschooling co-operatives are the option you have in all but a few loci.

        A generation ago, Andrew Greeley (of all people) made an irritant of himself to the Spirit-of-Vatican-II types in the Church by being an inveterate advocate of Catholic schools; he maintained that his survey research showed that CCD programs could not substitute for Catholic schools because such programs were ineffectual. Sadly, the point is moot now that ‘Catholic’ schools are merely private schools with crucifixes on the walls and a few elderly priests and religious haunting the campus.

        • musicacre

          It can be depressing hearing all this, but once again, it can be a call for a renewal of stronger faith when a parent realizes it is up to them to make it happen! We began humbly and shyly, and picked up strength, knowledge, and resources as we went!

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  • Nash Horne

    The take-away, having acknowledged the conclusions of this article, would seem to be that Christians of good will need to:
    1. Fight tooth and nail politically to elect virtuous politicians who rely on a moral absolute.
    2. Commit the ultimate rebellion against liberalism: live with genuine joy, treating all as if Christ that all souls might see their dignity and love God.
    3. Find all their hope in God Himself, rather than in the direction or output of earthly society.

  • theorist

    Let me also add that ethnicity and races also affect culture just as much as culture affects races and nations; one cannot imagine a black America that still respects George Washington in the same sense that a white one would, because the latter and the former peoples travel along different social-historical trajectories and live different narratives.

    Historically too, an ethnicity is often derived from some religion and propagated by that religion. For instance, Judaism is a religion for the descendents of Abraham, Hinduism is made up of multiple castes which are descended from different gods or demi-gods, and these castes continue the practice of Hinduism. Likewise the Athenians believed themselves to be descended from Athena and the very soil of the Piraeus itself. The Roman patricians counted gods like venus and mars among their ancestors as did the ancient spartan kings.
    How does this affect religion? Assuming that Catholicism is the true religion, and that it must appeal to all people, what racial-cultural conflicts must it cause or overcome to achieve universal dominance? Can a race which is synonymous with its religion (judaism, hinduism) exist in the face of a universal religion which abstracts from that race? Can all peoples be Catholics in exactly the same way? And to what degree should Catholics worry about racial demographics in the propagation of its world-view? I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions except for the hypothesis that as Noah did not insist on just one animal or on changing animals, but did not discriminate as he brought all the animals of the world into his ark, so likewise the Church must appeal to the different types of people by accepting them as they are.

  • Uuncle Max

    “Liberalism depends on That Which It Destroys” – true.

    Liberalism destroys that On Which It Depends. – also true.

    • slainte

      You have just described a parasite.